C’mon C’mon is a quiet tribute to parenthood

Mike Mills’s understated drama about an uncle navigating his relationship with his nephew and estranged sister turns the story of one family’s healing into something more universal.

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C'mon C'mon (2021)
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C'mon C'mon (2021)Courtesy of A24

C’mon C’mon is in UK cinemas from December 3.  

Family dynamics have played a pivotal role in the recent work of Mike Mills. His relationships with his father and mother have been explored in Beginners (2010) and 20th Century Women (2016), respectively; now the axis has been upended and his new film, C’mon C’mon, was inspired by his relationship with his son. Combining the skeleton of Wim Wenders’ 1974 road movie Alice in the Cities with his own experiences, Mills has crafted a tender, low-key paean to parenthood and the lessons we learn from children.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, an affable, soft-around-the-edges radio producer who listens to people for a living but struggles to communicate in his personal life. He hasn’t talked to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) for a year – things have been frosty for longer – but, when he phones on the anniversary of their mother’s passing, he unexpectedly offers to travel to LA and chaperone Viv’s son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she is out of town. Through Johnny and Jesse’s interactions, Viv’s calls home and snippets of her attempts to help Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), with his mental health, Mills constructs a delicately observed tapestry of complicated relationships.

Foremost of these is the bonding of Johnny and Jesse, during which Johnny learns the demands and dilemmas of parenting. He faces the panic of losing Jesse in public, and Viv mentors him through the guilt of shouting at his young charge. Her difficulties with Paul are deftly handled, providing a touching subplot that enhances the central story. Perhaps surprisingly, motherhood emerges as one of the film’s most resonant themes, and Hoffmann’s Viv arguably its most charismatic character. One sequence has Jesse describe his mother for Johnny’s microphone, painting a beautiful impressionistic portrait of her love and sacrifice through tiny acts of care. Hoffmann’s performance balances exasperation and adoration for Viv’s weird, wise son.

The film includes a few notable aesthetic and structural choices, most obviously its monochrome visuals, which are unexplained but accentuate the film’s thoughtful, intimate ambience. Readings from a variety of fiction and nonfiction books punctuate the conversational flow with interesting observations about life and responsibility, while the interviews for Johnny’s work – in which he asks children around the country about the future – offer a hopeful vision that broadens the scope from a specific family’s healing to something more universal and profound.