There are few actors working today who have the range that Joaquin Phoenix does. Throughout his career he has played everything from a tyrant to a country music superstar to a lovesick man who falls in love with his A.I. system. Whether in movies big or small, he nearly always finds a way to make a unique connection with his character, turning his performance into something memorable and, often, award-worthy.
After his Oscar-winning role in Joker, he has zagged again with an understated and emotional role in C’mon, C’mon. Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist who’s currently working on a series of interviews asking kids their opinions about the future. In the middle of traveling around the country, his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), asks him to look after her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), for a few days while she checks in her sick husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy).
A few days turns into longer, and Johnny decides to take Jesse with him to already-planned stops in New York City and New Orleans. Their time together proves both wonderful and challenging, as the uncle and nephew bond but also butt heads due to Johnny’s lack of parenting skills and Jesse’s somewhat unstable home life.
Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), the film is a beautiful human story, as well as a great tour of distinct parts of the United States. Filmed in black-and-white, there is zero flashiness to the film at all, with the cinematography keeping the focus on the characters throughout.
Johnny and Viv keep tabs on each other via texts and phone calls at various points in the story, and slowly but surely their fraught family relationship is fleshed out. While it’s clear there’s tension between them, the lines of communications remain open at all times, something that becomes important when Johnny discovers he doesn’t have many answers for the occasions when Jesse acts out in unusual ways.
The interviews, which were conducted with real kids in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, play a big part in the story. Not only do they give great insight into how kids are feeling about the future of the world right now, but they help ground Johnny and his colleagues, a group we don’t get to know well but who become strong characters due to the actors’ performances and Mills’ deft dialogue.
Not enough superlatives can be laid upon how well Phoenix, Hoffman, and Norman do in their respective roles. Phoenix is the most well-known quantity, and he delivers in every moment he’s on screen. Hoffman has had a nice presence on TV in recent years (Girls, Transparent), but her nuanced performance here indicates she’s deserving of more movie attention. Norman is the film’s secret weapon, making Jesse not into just a cute kid, but someone who’s equally as interesting as any of the adults in the room.
The wonder of C’mon, C’mon is that its compelling nature doesn’t require anything more than a story involving an exploration of real human issues. Grandiose fiction has its place, but people talking honestly with each other and showing relatable emotions is about as good as a movie can get.
C'mon, C'mon opens in theaters on November 24.