Mike Mills makes sweet and ineffably gracious movies about how people don’t know what the future holds or how the fuck they’re supposed to get there, and “C’mon C’mon” is definitely one of them. A shaggy black-and-white mood piece about an unmarried radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) who unexpectedly finds himself on a cross-country assignment with his nine-year-old nephew (Woody Norman) in tow, Mills’ latest film might bop around from Los Angeles to New York and New Orleans, but it never strays far from an ethos best expressed by Greta Gerwig’s character in “20th Century Women”: “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.”
The only fundamental difference here is just a matter of who’s doing the imagining. After making films about each of his late parents — “Beginners” and “20th Century Women,” two gracious and open-hearted portraits of the most unknowable people that most of us ever meet — Mills is now a parent himself. Trying to explain our world to a sponge-brained little someone who doesn’t know what to make of it has only seemed to deepen his suspicion that none of us ever do. That’s probably a scarier thought for adults than it is for kids. We’re lost — they’re exploring.
And so, armed with renewed curiosity and convinced that children might have a lot to re-teach us about putting one foot in front of the other, Mills has made a movie that quite literally asks them to imagine what their lives will be like. Phoenix plays Johnny, a rumpled but refreshingly down-to-Earth audio reporter who comes off as Ira Glass without an ironing board. His latest story finds him interviewing (unscripted) kids about what their futures might hold. “What worries you?” “What do you think cities will look like?” “What makes you crampy?” The future might be a mystery, but listening to Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s twinkly score as it falls over that adorable opening footage gives you a pretty good idea of what the next 100 minutes have in store: Quirky wonder, brutal honesty, and the fuzzy sense that our shared feelings of uncertainty can make us feel less alone so long as we find the confidence to compare notes with each other.
The results are a bit more wishy-washy than usual. If Mills’ films are typically aimed at the intersection where the personal and the universal collide, this one can be unspecific in a way that drifts toward vagueness. But “C’mon C’mon” finds a pulse of its own in the quasi-parental friendship that forms between Johnny and his nephew Jesse. Johnny is still reeling from his mother’s death, a pain exacerbated by the soft estrangement from his sister (Gaby Hoffmann). Jesse isn’t in the best headspace either. His bipolar father (Scoot McNairy) has split to San Francisco amid another manic episode, and the kid’s overactive imagination can only absorb his confusion for so long (Jesse loves to walk around the house and pretend he’s a bereaved Dickensian orphan).
Johnny and Jesse don’t have much of a pre-existing relationship, but they soon throw each other into a clarifying state of chaos. Johnny is forced to become a stand-in dad overnight, a temp job that comes with all of the expected trials and tribulations (“I was tired, but he wasn’t,” the shell-shocked uncle reports to his sister over the phone one night). Jesse, meanwhile, seems to feel liberated by this arrangement. In his uncle’s cluelessness, the kid finds permission to push boundaries and confess emotions that he never could at home. It sounds like the perfect recipe for another overly precocious child performance, but Norman is never the least bit annoying; he plays the character as a space cadet in his own little world, less of a truth-teller than a truth-seeker.
It doesn’t hurt that Phoenix has never been more natural. Even (or especially) the actor’s most celebrated and menacing performances have been imbued with a childlike sense of discovery — innocence curdled into raw id — and squaring off against an actual kid allows him to expose that same vulnerability without any of the weirdo effect needed to make the Joker more adult. It’s strange to see a movie where Phoenix embodies a “normal” character frustrated by the eccentricities of those around him, but he never feels like an alien wearing a human suit. It would be hard to swallow if Tom Cruise went back to playing lawyers, sports agents, or other sorts of semi-average joes, but Phoenix can still pull it off.
Vibes of Wim Wenders’ “Alices in the Cities” are strong once Johnny and Jesse fly to New York and start to bond, futzing around the semi-magical Chinatown that DP Robbie Ryan captures through his shimmering long-shot cinematography. Yet the film’s deliberately uncertain destination can’t absolve the meandering path it takes to get there. Mills’ visual inferences have never been more evocative, as luminous footage of highway traffic helps crystallize an elusive sense of direction, while a soft focus on the homogeneity of modern American cities anticipates a future that will further conflate our experiences together. But his dramatic currents have never been so diffuse. A movie like this needs to be loose in order to hold together, but “C’mon C’mon” tends to flitter around like it’s reluctant to reach the point, and the signature Mills-isms that lend his films their rhapsodic flavor (e.g., synth-backed narration draped over images of people dancing to music only they can hear) feel more like filler than connective tissue.
At the same time, Mills’ cinema is so lucidly empathetic — so genuine about its search for balance, and so eager to find the fullness in everyone’s lives — that it’s as easy to forgive the sleepy and self-effacing “C’mon C’mon” for its missteps as it is to forgive the film’s characters for their own. Johnny is preoccupied with mourning his late mom in the right way, and disciplining Jesse in the right way (his sister tells him there are scripts for this sort of thing online), and worrying that he didn’t handle his brother-in-law’s mental illness in the right way. While it eventually becomes clear that Johnny has good reason to make certain amends, the good-faith mistakes he’s made just prove there may not be a right way to do anything. Kids know that, but adults are liable to forget. As Jesse reassures his uncle in the film’s most touching scene, “I’ll remind you of everything.”
“C’mon C’mon” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. A24 will release the film later.