C'Mon C'Mon review: Joaquin Phoenix cries uncle in Mike Mills' gentle, bittersweet indie
Every auteur sings the song of themselves, but not many do it with as much frank, familial tenderness as Mike Mills. In the 2010 comic drama Beginners, he loosely traced the true story of his father's late-life coming out (Christopher Plummer went on to win an Oscar for the role); six years later, in 20th Century Women, he turned the lens toward his mother, played by a messy, radiant Annette Bening. At the world premiere of C'Mon C'Mon at the Telluride Film Festival last night, Mills introduced the movie as a tribute, in part, to his young son.
There's no way to know for sure where fact slides into fiction, but C'Mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Transparent's Gaby Hoffmann, and Woody Norman as a small whirlwind named Jesse, feels suffused in almost every frame with the love and frustration and abject exhaustion of parenting, even if half of it happens by proxy. Phoenix is Johnny, a melancholic New York radio producer who goes from city to city interviewing the kids of America about their hopes and dreams; his semi-estranged sister Viv (Hoffman) lives in Los Angeles with 9-year-old Jesse and a classical-musician husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), whose grip on mental health is slipping. Johnny and Viv haven't talked much since their mother died a year ago, and maybe not for a while before that. But she's out of options, so Johnny steps in to try to be the uncle he's never really been.
Jesse, it turns out, is a fantastic little weirdo — a 4-foot repository of radical honesty in striped pajamas who likes to blast opera at maximum decibels in the morning, tell long involved stories about fungus tubes, and pretend he's an orphan. He's also bruised by the uncertainties of his home life, and when Johnny takes him back to New York to finish an assignment, he's forced to reckon with the emotional weather system of a small, wary human he hardly knows. Sometimes they eat spaghetti in bistros and record the sound of skateboarders in the park and sleep like two peas in a twin bed; other times they're mad and sad and can't stand each other.
Mills films it all in elegant, streamlined black-and-white, with long shots of cityscapes and street scenes dissolving into ordinary domestic intimacies: a bathtub, a bodega, a sun-soaked living room floor. The story itself is a shaggier dog, interspersing recordings of real children from Detroit to New Orleans with a sort of rambling vérité narrative whose unhurried progression may or may not be fully scripted. Phoenix, set free from his famously coiled persona, feels miles away from the spiraling mania of Joker; he's rarely seemed this loose or vulnerable on screen. Hoffmann, too, is her own fierce whole-cloth character — another rich creation in Mills' bittersweet, gently profound collisions of art and life. Grade: B+