by Toby Woollaston
Verdict: An achingly beautiful observation of family life.
As they say in showbiz, “never work with animals or children”. That is, unless you are writer/director Mike Mills and child actor Woody Norman, whose latest film is a gentle embrace of humanity that turns the phrase on its head.
C’mon C’mon lends a compassionate ear to the story of Radio Journalist, Johnny, played by an, expectedly, excellent Joaquin Phoenix. When his sister is called away to attend to a family crisis, he is left to look after her young son, Jesse (Woody Norman). The pair soon fall into a rhythm that bends and twists as Johnny tries to comprehend an energetic young boy confused as to where he fits.
And as their relationship aches and sighs, so does the film. At times director Mills breaks with convention, cutting away to Johnny’s project work where he interviews children on their thoughts about the society they live in. These small documentary-style snippets of heartfelt and desperately honest accounts are where the film finds its nuanced understanding of the world. Mills is no stranger to social realism—his 2016 film, 20th Century Women, likewise brought domestic observations to the big screen with little fuss.
Here, he dials the fuss back even further, opting to shoot the entire film in black-and-white. While this may more often be the territory of modern filmmaker’s wanting to show off their chiaroscuro flair (The Lighthouse or The Tragedy of Macbeth) or to evoke memory (Belfast or Roma), C’mon C’mon instead uses its monochrome palette to scale back visual stimulus, allowing more space for the film’s incredible sound design. It really is a “listening” movie rather than a “watching” movie. At one point Johnny hands his headphones and directional mic over to Jesse—a gesture that allows us inside the head of the young boy as he listens to the world around him. The result is a sublime audible treat that captures a tender moment between the pair.
So much of C’mon C’mon hangs on the chemistry between its two leads and certainly the gamble to couple the experience, fame, and gravity of Phoenix with a young newcomer was a big one. However, Mills’ soft touch behind the camera and faith in his cast has delivered a film that’ll make your heart swell.