In this crepuscular indie drama, Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist whose life is changed for the better when he spends quality time with his quirky nephew. I read the film’s synopsis and thought, “Bah humbug! What next for Phoenix, a stint as Olaf in Frozen on Ice?”
Well, hush my cynical mouth. Mike Mills’ follow-up to 20th Century Women takes the hoariest of plot lines (lonely child redeems lonely adult) only to soar above the clichés.
Generating a swirl of philosophical questions about grief, mental illness and false vs authentic memories, C’mon C’mon has unsettling flashbacks in which we see Johnny and his sister, Viv (Abby Hoffmann) interacting with their dying and demented mother (Deborah Strang).
Viv’s fraught relationship with her mum has shaped the way she interacts with her 8 year old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), as well as Jesse’s bipolar dad, Paul (Scoot McNairy). In this bohemian clan, delusions/day-dreams are encouraged. Specifically, Viv wants Johnny to indulge Jesse’s fantasy that he’s a beleaguered orphan about to be adopted by the parent of a dead child. Johnny instinctively recoils from this extravagantly gothic “game”, before having a revelation about himself and his nephew: “He’s spoiled. Or maybe I am.”
There’s a fine line between a cocoon and a tomb and that razor’s edge is where the film sets up home. Essentially, we’re watching a jolly hybrid of Hereditary and The Babadook. The family dynamics are both funny and deeply peculiar.
That Jesse is played by Norman is crucial. Norman is a Londoner, though you’d never guess it (his Californian accent is perfect). With his goblin-ish eyes, Norman ensures that Jesse never congeals into some approximation of adorability. When Jesse gets agitated and asks if he’s going to turn out like his dad, that feels likes a real possibility, even as the film makes clear that to be bipolar is not the end of the world.
It’s easy to fetishise the kind of sparky kid who discusses fungal networks at the dinner table. Mills avoids that pit-fall by filling the movie with a range of youngsters. Johnny is a cultural anthropologist, in the Studs Terkel mould, and his latest assignment sees him interviewing real-life children about their fears and hopes. The voices of these young people (which Jesse lovingly listens to and helps record) ground the film. Because these testimonies are so very distinct from one another it becomes self-evident that there’s no such thing as a bog-standard child.
The movie’s shot in black and white which means that, though Johnny is constantly on the move, there’s a strong sense of continuity. Buildings in New York’s China Town looks as chunkily stark as lush trees in New Orleans, while Detroit and LA give off the same grey glow. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who worked on The Favourite) is a magician. When Mills combines the off-kilter visuals with tracks like The Primitives’ The Ostrich, (Lou Reed’s boisterous answer to The Crystals Then He Kissed Me), it’s hard not to swoon.
20th Century Women was a tenderly acerbic ode to Mills’ mum. This feels like an ode to all mothers who, for whatever reason, are doing the lion’s share of child care.
Aside from a few contrived and too-obviously “mindful” moments, it’s bulls***-free. The quietest thing on Phoenix’s CV, it allows the 47 year old actor to be gently mesmerising. Hoffmann is equally gritty and Norman, well, he’s special. C’mon for real and keep up with a trio trying to understand what makes messy, modern families tick.