Insightful, poignant, and emotionally satisfying
Relationship dramas are director Mike Mill’s forte but I’m not talking about romantic movies here. While I’m sure he has the capacity to create his own iteration of Pretty Woman, The Notebook, or one of the thousands of other lovey-dovey movies that currently exist, he tends to focus on loving relationships of a very different kind.
In 2010’s Beginners, he focused on the relationship between a father (who has recently come out as gay) and his adult son. In 2016, he gave us 20th Century Women, a story about a young teenager and the affectionate bond he has with his mother and the other women that play their part in raising him.
And in C’mon C’mon, he has given us a tender and beautifully written story about a young boy and the relationship he forms with his uncle when they are given the opportunity to explore New York together.
Mills seems to know the intricacies of human relationships better than most other writer-directors out there and this is partly because of his observational talents and partly because of his own life experiences that he draws on when crafting the stories he brings to the screen.
Unlike Beginners and 20th Century Woman, I don’t think C’mon C’mon is autobiographical but the characters still come across as real human beings, with the hang-ups and complicated emotions that many of us can identify with. It tells the story of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist who is asked by his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) to watch over her son Jesse (Woody Norman) for a few days while she takes time out to visit her husband at a psychiatric facility.
It doesn’t take long for Johnny and Jesse to bond but their relationship becomes a little strained when he takes him to New York for a few days so he can finish a work assignment. As they roam the streets together capturing the sounds of the city through the recording devices Johnny uses for his project, the two talk about life, its meaning, and the various thoughts that come out of young Jesse’s head.
It’s a joy to watch the two of them bond with one another but their relationship is not without its pitfalls. Johnny is clearly somebody that Jesse looks up to but while he tries his best, the melancholic Johnny can’t always relate to the fireball of a nephew that he barely knows. The occasional outbursts aside, however, the two still manage to get along, despite one another’s quirks and temperaments.
In terms of the story, not a lot really happens. It’s just Jesse and Johnny hanging out, with the occasional dramatic moment, such as when the kid temporarily goes missing during a shopping trip. But to criticize the movie for its lack of story would be to do it a disservice. It might not have the traditional 3-act structure that many of us are accustomed to, but the characters still grow as individuals and as a pairing and by its end, the movie still concludes in an emotionally satisfying way.
So, while much of this movie might seem inconsequential, there is still a lot going on underneath. The film chronicles life, with all of its minutiae and eccentricities, and it details the very real love that can develop between two individuals who are worlds apart in terms of age and life experiences. It’s because Phoenix and Norman are so good in their respective roles that we can believe in Johnny and Jesse’s familial relationship and there is much to enjoy as we watch them interact and get to know one another.
The dialogue between the two is incredibly realistic and there are times when I suspect some scenes may have been improvised. I’m not sure if they were or not, but the words that come of out of their mouths still ring with authenticity. This is probably down to Mills writing as well as the talents of the two actors but while their lines may or may not have been planned, there were definitely moments that weren’t.
As part of his work, Johnny interviews young people about their hopes and dreams. The scenes Phoenix shared with these kids were unscripted as they were real-life subjects and not actors drafted in to play a part. Phoenix clearly had the ability to relate to these teens and according to an interview with the director, the actor’s authenticity and warmth allowed the kids to open up to him. After seeing the way Phoenix related to his young co-star, this is of no surprise as young Woody is clearly drawn to his older co-star.
Beyond the performances, there is much more to like about this film, from the beautiful monochrome photography to the location shooting that brings the sights and sounds of New York alive. The ambient soundtrack is glorious too and with all of these pieces put together, the movie epitomizes a journey worth taking.
If you can buy into the central relationship between Johnny and Jesse, you will fall in love with them both as well as this film. You might even shed a tear at the end when it’s finally time for them both to say goodbye and return to their respective lives.
At one point Johnny says to Jesse: “You’ll barely remember this. You’ll have like a few blurry memories of this whole trip.” “You’re stupid” Jessie replies in response, possibly because he knows that the memories he has made with his uncle are memories worth remembering. You might believe the same after watching this very special movie.
Verdict - 8/10