When LA-based writer Viv (Gaby Hoffman) has to leave town for a family emergency, she reluctantly asks her quasi-estranged NY-based journalist brother Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) to watch her nine-year old son Jesse (Woody Norman).
There are so many things I loved about Mike Mills’ gentle yet raw, introspective yet expansive C’mon C’mon. Yes, the performances are amazing. Yes, the black and white cinematography is beautiful. But let me try to explain why it spoke to me in such a deep way.
Mills, as well as former child actors Hoffman and Phoenix, have likely had a lot of therapy over the years. The film speaks in this knowing language. I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I’m proudly married to a therapist, and did do some work recently, mostly to help me be a better parent (results still pending). C’mon C’mon might be the best film about parenting I have seen as a parent. Poignant observations inform the narrative and made the characters highly relatable in ways few recent films have.
While caring for Jesse, Johnny works on a documentary where he and his partners interview kids from different cities across the US about their lives and what they think the future will hold. Mills effortlessly weaves in unscripted responses from actual kids into the central narrative of Jesse and Johnny in ways that make everything feel naturalistic. The kids’ answers to the questions are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and viewed in the context of Johnny trying to connect to his nephew, it offered me glimpses into the future where I wondered what the world will hold once this pandemic is over and how I might continue to grow and relate to my own son (now only three) when we can finally start to travel together and he becomes Jesse’s age. The story is further colored with voice-overs of Johnny reading different works from essays on motherhood to children’s stories, all adding shades of nuance to the emotional journey.
The best art makes you feel something you don’t want to lose. And what C’mon C’mon mostly made me feel was hope…hope for a future that will likely be hard but also filled with beauty, of being seen and understood on some level by the people I care about most, and of me seeing and understanding them in return. The main characters have had strained relationships to each other in the past, and intermittently in present moments of crisis, but what I loved was how nice everyone was to each other. They learned to listen…to give each other space…and maybe most importantly to give themselves a break. We’re sometimes our own worst critics. At one point Johnny muses that maybe the strain in his connection with Jesse is because Jesse is so spoiled…or maybe Johnny is.
Being a kid, being an adult, being a parent…being alive…none of it is easy. We can’t always be fine. It’s okay to be not fine. But maybe if we’re all just a little gentler with each other when we’re not fine, we can get through it and move on.