The looming threat of ecological collapse is entirely inescapable. Whether revealing itself through spontaneous deadly floodwaters in New York City or a catastrophic oil spill off of the California coastline, full-blown devastation appears all but imminent. Though the urgency of this crisis is indisputable, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon argues that there is still merit in maintaining optimism. While continuing to mold his protagonists after his immediate family members—in this case his (and fellow filmmaker Miranda July’s) nine-year-old son—the director presents a picture of sincere sentimentality rooted not in previously occupied states of nostalgia or raw lived experience, but rather forward-looking hopefulness for an ostensibly fraught future.
A year after the death of their mother, broadcast radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) reaches out to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) to amend a recent lack of communication. While catching up, Viv reveals that her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is in the midst of a bipolar episode in the Bay Area, and she feels compelled to go and convince him to seek inpatient care. Johnny has only one question: Who is going to watch her son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she’s away? Though originally tasked with watching his nephew for only a few days, extenuating circumstances lead to Jesse accompanying Johnny on an extensive city-spanning reporting project. Fittingly, the assignment finds Johnny and his colleagues conducting audio interviews with children across the country, gauging their thoughts on matters of the heart, mind and soul—specifically, what do they think the future will look like? Despite undertaking an intimate story about the oft-overlooked interiority and intelligence of American adolescents, Johnny finds himself wholly unsure about his ability to assume the role of caretaker for his own relative.
Much like Beginners is directly inspired by his father’s coming out and 20th Century Women by the experiences of his mother and sister, C’mon C’mon also transposes Mills’ own memories to the screen. This time, the cinematic catalyst was a simple bathtime conversation the director had with his son—a detail faithfully recreated in the film with a delicate and appropriately realistic touch. However, it’s hard to imagine the film’s success without the dynamic chemistry between Phoenix and Norman, with the two seamlessly playing off one another’s dialogue and an air of childlike spontaneity permeating every interaction. Norman’s performance is a rarity in that it displays obvious talent while preserving a childlike playfulness that never feels over-acted. The understated performance by Hoffmann is equally effective for this same reason, imbuing the role with a semblance of thoroughly modern millennial motherhood, endearing in its eccentricity. Even ancillary elements of the film help to imbue a more palpable sense of vérité, such as the casting of real-life WNYC Radiolab correspondent Molly Webster as one of Johnny’s colleagues or the beautiful banality of recording street sound, room tone and narration for a radio piece.
While it’s true that a slew of films have previously explored the clash between children and impromptu guardians when assimilating to their newfound roles (John Cassavetes’ Gloria, most notably, as well as the Phoenix-starring 2017 Lynne Ramsey film You Were Never Really Here), C’mon C’mon differs from its predecessors by maintaining the innate innocence of the children involved. There never comes a time when Jesse or any of the young interview subjects are completely exposed to the world’s wickedness, but this isn’t due to their own naivete. The film is as much about how childrearing forever alters an adult’s worldly perspective as it is the unassuming thoughtfulness of young people. Even when confronted with questions concerning an increasingly uncertain global landscape and complex interior thoughts, it’s explicitly clear that children experience “real-world” anxieties that adults are uniquely quick to dismiss—though they probably feel similarly themselves.
In a technical sense, C’mon C’mon is also extremely efficacious in employing the sonic intricacies of audio journalism. Johnny introduces rudimentary concepts such as gain, audio levels and speaking distance from the microphone to Jesse, who picks it up with childlike ease and intuition, and whose frenetic audio recordings end up on Johnny’s tape alongside formal sit-down interviews—a recorded reminder of Johnny’s own tangible investment in the wellbeing of the next generation. The score by twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National (whom Mills has previously shot music videos for) is likewise gorgeous in its minimal scope, never overshadowing the soundscape of bustling city noise and tranquil residential blocks captured in each city the team visits.
Though the central radio piece that Johnny and his colleagues gradually construct during the film is initially depressing in its assertion of just how cognizant young people are to the perils of the world that await them in adulthood, it is also heart-wrenching and hopeful in its honesty. Virtually none of the subjects interviewed perceive the future as entirely void of opportunity for improvement—and if at least some children truly believe that things can turn around for their generation, wouldn’t dismissing that tender optimism be the same exact brand of condescension that many of the kids express frustration with? Particularly when the presence of material issues in many of these kids’ lives prove more pertinent—incarcerated parents, emotional negligence, racism—the end of humanity seems to be the least of their problems.
In this sense, the future generation needs more than just intangible well wishes and patronizing pity. Instead, they need robust interpersonal support, deeper emotional understanding and advocacy on the part of adults in their lives—all in all, to be taken much, much more seriously than they currently are. In amplifying the diverse voices of American children through the film’s radio vérité subplot, C’mon C’mon proves that kids have some pretty insightful advice to impart, if only we’d just listen.
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Jaboukie Young-White, Molly Webster
Release Date: November 19, 2021 (A24)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan