'C'mon C'mon' Sensitively Reveals the Sacrifices of Parenthood Directed by Mike Mills
Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy
Published Nov 26, 2021Approximately every five years, writer-director Mike Mills gives his audience a new cinematic meditation on the relationship between parents and children. After Beginners and 20th Century Women, which dramatized his real-life father and mother, Mills has turned to examine parenting from the adult perspective. In thoughtful and earnest ways — occasionally too earnest — C'mon C'mon explores the repetition, rituals and emotions of parenthood, specifically the more evolved ways of raising kids that prioritize their thoughts and autonomy.
Disheveled radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) travels through US cities on a vague assignment interviewing children about their thoughts on the future, a task he can swing because he has no offspring himself. One day, his single parent sister Viv (Transparent's intensely good Gaby Hoffman) calls with a plea for help, and Johnny arrives to care for his nine-year-old nephew Jesse (the very talented Woody Norman) for a few days while Viv helps her ex (Scoot McNairy) deal with mental health issues — days that stretch into weeks of unexpected joy and toil.
While the film is about an uncle and nephew getting to know one another, C'mon C'mon is really a Trojan horse for exploring the burden of motherhood. Johnny reaches out to Viv through nightly phone calls begging for advice on dealing with Jesse; she is exhausted from days managing Jesse's father's bipolar breakdowns, but she talks her brother through because mothers are accustomed to giving even when their cup is empty. Although Johnny makes mistakes (a midnight discourse about abortion is a howler), it's refreshing that the film doesn't make him the clichéd bumbling father figure: Johnny really tries. A researcher at heart, he digs into books like Jacqueline Rose's essays in Mothers and reflects on why society squeezes so damn much life from those who give it. These literary extracts work better than voiceover excerpts from Johnny's radio interviews with kids: many of the answers have a bland sameness to them and just aren't as deep as Mills thinks they are.
C'mon C'mon is a decent if unmemorable foray into sensitive material that doesn't shy away from what parenting offers and features great performances (it's certainly a nice, naturalistic pivot for Phoenix to make after Joker). The way you interact with the narrative really may depend on the stage of life you inhabit, but the burden and gift of parenting is always a valuable subject. For the middle-aged and jaded, the film says: there is a way of accessing beauty and novelty through the eyes of children — you just have sacrifice everything to get it. (VVS)