starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scoot McNairy, Gaby Hoffmann, Jaboukie Young-White
written and directed by Mike Mills
by Walter Chaw It takes a certain level of courage to make a movie like Mike Mills's C'mon C'mon, in which at least one, possibly two of the three main characters are so profoundly irritating it would be cathartic to see them shocked into compliant conformity. But that's exactly what you shouldn't do. It's a film about mining difficult conversations, asking the right questions and listening to the answers, practicing empathy when it's absolutely the riskiest thing to do, i.e., when the person you're trying to empathize with is smart, slippery, and able to push all of your buttons. Relationships, in other words--intimate ones with family where between platitudes and comfortable silences, there can erupt withering indictments and unresolved grievances. I love Mills's Beginners and 20th Century Women because of their essential kindness, how Mills writes dialogue that's searching without being grating, honest without being cruel. His characters are looking for the right way to do things, the elegant thing to say at the moment of crisis, but they're thwarted by unexpected developments and circumstances beyond their control. His films are about navigating choppy waters with only the love of your family to guide you, and they're beautiful.
C'mon C'mon is beautiful, too, at least in how it looks, with DP Robbie Ryan's Manhattan-fueled chiaroscuro giving a glimmering sheen to its Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans cityscapes, with their arterial flows of traffic, canyons of steel and glass, and old cobbled avenues thick with history and falling into decay. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist working on a project to record children answering a set of questions that includes asking them about what they believe will happen in the future, what they think adults need to learn, and what worries them. As played by Phoenix, Johnny is rumpled, unshaven, bemused a lot of the time as armour against the despair you feel in adulthood over how everything was supposed to be clear by now and is muddier instead. So he's asking kids to remind him of what he's forgotten and, in the course of it, his sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffmann), from whom he's been estranged since their mother died a difficult death from dementia (during which the pair argued over whether or not to indulge her delusions), calls. Viv has separated from her manic-depressive husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), and he's not sleeping or eating. She needs to take care of him, and she needs someone to take care of her and Paul's son, Jesse (Woody Norman).
Jesse might have what his dad has. At the least, he's neuro-atypical. Maybe he's merely precocious. Whatever he is, and this may speak more of me than it does of Jesse, I found him to be insufferable--nails-on-a-chalkboard grating. The way he mocks his uncle, his frequent tantrums, his open contempt and disrespect for Johnny and his mother... It's possible that Jesse is just the product of a certain parenting style that believes in talking to children as if they're adults, which sounds great on paper but I confess that when my children were nine, I didn't subject them to a checklist of probing questions like Johnny does when Jesse flips out. Maybe I should have. Maybe there's a lot of uncertainty about what's right--too much when you consider how raising children is the most important thing we do. C'mon C'mon is about how nobody really knows what they're doing; despite everyone's best efforts and intentions, our kids end up scarred by things we didn't even know we did. That's the miracle of kids: that they survive us adults and--for a while, at least--carry with them the hope for a future in which they don't repeat our mistakes. Mills's films are also about how children process the pain of their parents, how they attempt to contextualize it somehow and, failing that, metastasize their helplessness into entire syndromes of fear and insecurity. Although I didn't like C'mon C'mon, I do respect it. It's trying to do something very difficult. It made me unhappy and uncomfortable, but it's not supposed to be easy.