C’Mon C’Mon

C’Mon C’Mon is Mike Mills’s weepiest film to date. His first two features – Beginners and Twentieth Century Women – were about parents trying the best they can despite their own emotional shortcomings. That these are stories about his own two parents seems to go without saying, as Mills has little problem with confessing the amount of autobiography that passes through his screenplays. His latest film is about an uncle played by Joaquin Phoenix (fabulously chubby and delightful, miles away from his dark Oscar turn in Joker, and much better), a man in the midst of a wide-ranging project where he interviews children about their emotional connection to the human world. This might seem to make him ideal to take care of his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), but C’Mon C’Mon goes on to test that theory.

Phoenix plays Johnny, a middle-aged single man whose sole commitment is to his interview project. When he talks to his estranged sister, Viv (an astounding Gaby Hoffman), for the first time since their mother passed away, he learns that she is having trouble with her husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy, in a beautiful, fully formed performance seen only in snippets from memories and flashbacks), a manic-depressive who’s gone off his meds. Viv asks Johnny if he can come to California to watch her young son Jesse. Johnny steadfastly agrees to help, even if he is a bit skittish – he hasn’t seen Jesse since he was a small child, and right away his nephew tests his limits, waking him up at the crack of dawn playing loud music on the living room stereo.

More so than in his previous films, Mills fills C’Mon with montages and cross-cuts, keeping the story in constant fluidity, flowing from frustration to communion and back again within the relationship between uncle and nephew. What starts as babysitting for a few days on the West Coast turns into an elongated stay with uncle Johnny and a cross-country trip to his New York City home. A lot of the interactions between uncle and nephew are cantankerous – Johnny was used to seeing his way out when Jesse’s more annoying traits would surface – but there is often camaraderie between the two. Even in their disparate ages, they can still recognize each other as scared children, unsure of the world and what happens within it.

The level of autobiography in Mills’ films is a turn-off for some (“just a memory dump”, I’ve heard others claim), and after three films, the fatigue is understandable. C’Mon C’Mon feels to me like the most sentimental of his three features, and that’s probably because his surrogate is the parental figure this time and not the child. As embodied by Phoenix, Johnny is a sensitive single man, nursing a break-up and trying to make amends with a sister for whom he actually does care deeply (their divide stems from him advising her to leave the troubled Paul years before). The fact that he knows that watching over Jesse will be difficult doesn’t help him when the actual difficulty arrives. Jesse is a dynamo and a trickster, constantly testing his fish-out-of-water uncle to see where the danger is.

As Viv needs more and more time to help convince Paul to commit himself, Johnny’s stay continues to get elongated, rubbing up against his work commitments. He eventually ends up bringing Jesse to other cities across the country as he continues his interview series. The trips frustrate Viv, but end up bonding the uncle and nephew, as the two continue to measure each other’s fortitude. If the plot sounds similar to the Dustin Hoffman film Kramer vs. Kramer, you’re not far off, as Johnny does end up caring for Jesse in a similar arc as Hoffman’s beleaguered ad exec learns to care for his young son. But C’Mon C’Mon is a much more sensitive film, and much more attune to the larger world that surrounds their relationship.

This film is not as profound as Beginners or Twentieth Century Women (few are), but its scenes and performances are rich with feeling. Phoenix and Norman, the one-two punch of the film have a tremendous chemistry, bringing life into the stale high-strung nephew with rough-and-ready uncle trope. Their chemistry with one another gives the film legitimate laughs throughout, and Phoenix shows once again to be a profoundly sensitive performer, capable of almost anything. As Viv, Gaby Hoffman proves once again to be a phenomenal actor, even within a character whose relegated mostly to high-strung complaining into a cell phone. That she makes such a full-fledged character out of a supporting part is a testament to her commitment and feeling as a performer.

Mills’ style, a sort of (for lack of a better phrase) pop music-infused stream-of-consciousness, can be hypnotic and seductive in all the right ways. His attachment to particularly sensitive men and the strident women that make up their lives is part of that style. His characters are formed by parents in good ways and bad, wanting desperately to pass on the good and hopelessly to suppress the bad. C’Mon C’Mon is his first film to take on the paternal point-of-view (in this case, an uncle), with his first two coming from the perspective of the children. Perhaps that shows some level of maturity from Mills, having his protagonist assume the adult role for once. To me, this felt like more of the same from a director fascinated by what we know and don’t know about our family. We don’t seem to know too much, but I agree with Mills that it’s fascinating to try and learn.


Written and Directed by Mike Mills