There are unmistakably universal experiences in the journey of growing up. Most people can remember snippets of being a wide-eyed, chattery kid, unable to understand why adults were so tired so often and couldn’t always reciprocate their curious energy. With some effort, one might be able to uncover deep memories of unexplained childhood frustrations which were impossible to accurately voice in all one’s youthful inexperience. Now, it is possible to contrast those real but simpler grievances with the more complex — yet often still unexplainable — ones they have been replaced with throughout the years.
This age-long, inevitable cycle of turmoil, resolution and joy — and its evolution throughout one’s life — is explored in writer-director Mike Mills’ latest film “C’mon C’mon,” along with many other facets of the human condition surrounding growth and connection.
While his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) goes out of town to help her schizophrenic husband (Scoot McNairy) settle into life after a move to San Francisco, “C’mon C’mon” follows radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is tasked with looking after his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Still grappling with the aftermath of a breakup, enduring the residual grief of his mother’s passing and shouldering familial tensions with his sister and brother-in-law, Johnny takes Jesse to New York to work on his latest project: conducting interviews with kids around the country, asking them about their visions for the future.
The film is shot entirely in black and white, a decision which, Mills explained at a post-screening Q&A at the 2021 Mill Valley Film Festival, is supposed to take audiences out of familiar reality. Although the film is visually unlike anything viewers would see in reality, the stories captured in the film are strikingly relatable. With its depictions of childhood, parenthood and marriage appearing so candid and realistic, it’s easy to forget that the scenes aren’t glimpses into real people’s lives.
Another element that greatly contributes to the film’s authenticity is its distinctive use of real interviews with children — not actors — as part of Johnny’s project. It is quite incredible to follow a film about unraveling the world’s mysteries through young eyes while it’s peppered with actual kids’ reflections and their anticipations for the world they are growing up into. Individually, the elements of fictional storytelling and authentic interviews are intriguing and effective, but when paired together, they amplify each other’s genuineness.
Of course, a story about the trials and tribulations of life could not reach its full potential without an unbelievably talented cast. Phoenix plays a gentle, trying-his-best uncle with the perfect amount of charming awkwardness to bring his character to life on screen. Hoffmann’s performance as Jesse’s mom, Viv, echoes both true hair-pulling frustrations and unwavering mother’s love with what could only be an honest reflection of lived-through, firsthand experiences.
The real star, however, is 12-year-old Norman, who impressively brings a nuanced understanding of the powerful meanings behind and scene into a performance so dominated with authentic childlike wonder. It is already rare to see an actor of Norman’s age deliver a performance as strong as his in “C’mon, C’mon,” but almost impossible to find one who seems to be able to comprehend the significance of such resonant, abstract themes. Norman holds wisdom and maturity far beyond what is expected from a child his age, and it is truly a marvel to witness.
Similarly magnificent, Mills’ writing for the film is unreal in the ironic sense that it feels too real. It feels magical to watch scenes capture the familiar, little moments in life and human interaction — moments so little that they often go noticed but undescribed, felt but not otherwise expressed. From Viv singing Jesse songs from her childhood to Johnny and Jesse laughing and playfully tapping the dining table together, the film immortalizes small, universal instants in life which have for so long evaded intentional capture altogether.
Like a warm hug that wraps the soul in assuring relatability, “C’mon C’mon” bleeds familiarity in a way you may not have realized you needed until now.