In C’mon C’mon, Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix Navigate the Puzzling Territory of Kid Logic
Movies about childless adults learning great life lessons from children are generally a terrible idea—unless they’re made by Mike Mills, whose semi-autobiographical reflections on his own upbringing resulted in the marvelous Women of the 20th CenturyOne of the best films of 2016, In Mills’ C’mon C’mon,Joaquin Phoenix portrays Johnny, a New York City journalist, who accepts responsibility for Jesse, a nine-year old Los Angeles child. His sister, Viv, (Gaby Hoffman), takes care of some family matters that are emotionally complex.
Johnny isn’t used to being around children, and at first has no idea what to do with Jesse, an exceptionally bright kid who, thanks to his mother, is well-schooled in talking about his feelings. (One of his favorite games is to pretend he’s an orphan with a tragic backstory, a rather odd quirk that Viv indulges.) But once Johnny gets past the usual speedbumps of recognizing that kids don’t always behave or react as you expect, these two strike an accord. Johnny persuades Viv to let him take Jesse on the road with him—first to New York and later to New Orleans—as he works on a project that involves interviewing school kids about their hopes for the future. Their time together changes them both—each learns to flex to accommodate the moods and feelings of the other, making both of their worlds just a little bigger, and a lot better.
Mills, who is a filmmaker that you can trust to tell a story this simple, doesn’t let the action veer too sentimentally. Maybe what he’s really doing is exploring the weight and texture of future childhood memories. Grown-ups always want to create “memorable experiences” for kids, but the reality—whether adults like it or not—is that you can’t program memories in advance. The human memory is analog, not digital, and as Johnny gets Jesse acclimated to New York—so different from Los Angeles, with its cheerfully gloomy weather and its gridlike streets made for walking—we can almost see those future memories taking shape. It doesn’t hurt that C’mon C’monRobbie Ryan, a renowned cinematographer, shot this film in black-and white. He captures New York in its most ordinary and ornery beauty.
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And it’s been easy to forget that Phoenix, who tends to earn accolades for portraying oddballs and troubled loners, is better than almost anyone at playing regular guys occasionally bewildered by life. He’s terrific here, navigating the occasionally puzzling territory of kid logic—like the directness with which Jesse demands to know why he’s single—and dealing with his own flashes of anger when Jesse momentarily disappears from his view on a city street. Phoenix is alert and perceptive, able to sense the subtle signals of human emotions that may be sent by other performers. Norman, like Jesse is not too fond of the cuteness. Jesse’s intelligent willfulness is what makes him both unruly and great; Norman instinctively knows not to tame that out of the character. Being in C’mon C’mon, you may think you know exactly what it’s going to be. Coming out, you’ll probably see that you were mostly right, but that you also got a million little firefly flashes of feeling you weren’t expecting. This is Mike Mills’ touch.