“He’s a whole little person,” Jesse’s mother warns her brother when he offers to take care of her son for a few days. But Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is in no way ready for the way that his experiences with Jesse (Woody Norman) will affect him. Mike Mills’s latest drama C’mon C’mon proves that he is as in touch with the human experience as ever as he perfectly assembles a film that is heartwarming without ever being saccharine.
C’mon C’mon is the Most Heartwarming Film of the Year
Johnny is a New York-based radio journalist traveling around the country to interview young people about their thoughts on the future. When he finds out that his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) needs to help care for her son’s father Paul (Scoot McNairy) who is struggling with his mental health, Johnny offers to take care of his nephew.
Nine-year-old Jesse is unusually precocious, an odd child who delights in pretending to be an orphan just to ask his mother (or now, his uncle) to take him in. Johnny is unsure how to treat him at first, unused to being around his nephew and childless himself. But the two quickly settle into a steady banter and Jesse enjoys putting all of his uncle’s sound recording gear on to walk around LA.
When Viv needs more time with Paul, Johnny takes Jesse with him first back to New York City and then to New Orleans for work. While the pair grow more attached to each other, the audience can’t help but fall for their easy dynamic as well. In one way, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie other than the two of them hanging out, but there doesn’t need to be because their emotional journey is engaging enough.
Johnny and Viv are also healing their relationship through frequent phone calls to each other to discuss Jesse’s behavior. We see a few careful flashbacks to their mother’s hospitalization and death the year before and the way in which the siblings’ problems with their parents manifested in their mother’s last weeks. This film is so gentle — even the conflict between the siblings arises out of misplaced blame and misunderstandings — but in a way that feels comforting.
It’s beautiful to see Johnny come to understand and appreciate his sister more as he cares for her son. In many ways, C’mon C’mon is a tribute to motherhood and all those who care for children. It recognizes not just Viv’s love for her son, but her selflessness and her willingness to care for her partner while he is going through a difficult time.
The film is greatly enhanced by the clips of interviews that we see Johnny doing with tweens and teens across the country, which were real unscripted interviews with genuine answers. Johnny’s partner Roxanne is played by actual public radio journalist Molly Webster. It’s both disheartening and encouraging to hear these kids talk about the world’s issues as they perceive them; they are refreshingly aware of the problems, but also largely optimistic about the future.
C’mon C’mon is a wonderful reminder that though he might have won his Oscar for playing the titular role in Joker, Phoenix is as excellent at portraying quiet, soft characters as he is at slipping into more outlandish, darker roles. He spends much of the film reading, whether adult books or The Wizard of Oz to Jesse, and musing on the interviews that he’s recorded. There’s a sincerity to his performance that grounds the whole film.
The true star of C’mon C’mon isn’t Phoenix though, it’s Norman in his first major film role. Matching Phoenix’s talent is no small feat even for a grown actor and Norman is able to keep up with him flawlessly. The pair have excellent chemistry and both have an ability to bring across more comedic moments in a way that feels realistic. Norman makes Jesse feel very much like a real child: both endearing and almost awe-inspiring while also infuriating and obnoxious.
The most magnificent thing about the film is how Mills captures something very real about the frustration and the wonder of being around a tiny human. Whether it’s Johnny’s uncertainty of how to answer Jesse’s invasive questions (“Why aren’t you married?” or “Do you have trouble with expressing your emotions?”) or his all-encompassing panic when he loses Jesse in a store for a few minutes, these are feelings that will be familiar to anyone who has taken care of a child before. As someone with a much younger little sister, there was so much that I recognized in this film.
Mills has the ability with his films to create something that feels profound without being pretentious. Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous black and white cinematography and Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s beautiful and tranquil score add to this feeling of profundity. While we might be witnessing something fairly pedestrian, there is a sense of something deeper and more important going on as the two bond.
Some may find C’mon C’mon too slow, but its quiet pace actually makes it all the more impactful. This is the sort of film that I can’t help but want to live in forever; though grounded in reality, it also provides a respite from a too busy and chaotic world. While much of that is at the hands of the great performances, it’s also a testament to Mills’s fantastic screenplay. If I have a son one day and he’s not just like Jesse, I will be sorely disappointed.
C'mon C'mon is in theaters now.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.