C’mon C’mon (2021)
Written & Directed by Mike Mills
I’ve never understood the mentality of older people to look down on children. In recent years, young people’s thoughts have been fundamental to me as it is apparent that the generation in power has no idea how to get us out of our current problems. I don’t think it’s because of my job teaching, because I have met many teachers who view young people with great disdain. It’s possibly attributed to being surrounded by incompetent adults as a child that I’ve ended up in this place. Mike Mills seems to also be interested in hearing what young people think, and his latest film is all about really hearing children’s views on the world, being confident that a young person can handle the heaviness life can bring.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist going across America to interview children about their thoughts on the future. He gets sidetracked when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) asks him to come to Los Angeles and watch her son Jesse (Woody Norman). Viv’s estranged husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is struggling with some intense mental illness issues, and she has to travel to help him get into a facility. Johnny and Jesse become close quickly but struggle to get to know each other better. Jesse has strange quirks, like asking his mother to tell him about imagined dead siblings and then emulating them. While very good at interviewing others, Johnny doesn’t like to open up about his own life and thoughts. Both people grow and change through their time together, realizing how important this time will be in their lives.
As an uncle who adores his nephew and niece, C’mon C’mon is one of those movies I knew would get me emotionally. I don’t have any kids of my own; no plans anytime soon for them either. I find kids fascinating though, their perspective on the world is so refreshing, and they think of solutions to problems that adults just never would. They lack the cynicism we adults so quickly develop when we’re thrown to the wolves of the world and come to see how effective change on a systemic level is such a rare thing. They also wonder about how things are, especially things we’ve come to accept as the norm. When an adult is forced to explain one of these aspects of life, it becomes clear how absurd so much of modern life has become, how we take for granted things that just shouldn’t be the norm.
Helping a child come up and learn to see the variety of life in the world is very sacred. You are tasked with helping build the future, and successes and failures you experience become a part of what the future will be. Guiding children through emotions, especially in the face of really harsh realities, is so delicate that you can mess it up while having the best intentions. Johnny is trying to shield Jesse from the details of what is going on with his dad. It’s clear Paul’s mental illness has affected Jesse, but there’s a big difference between a child knowing something isn’t right and them being shown the full array of how fucked up the situation is. When Jesse does begin to fully realize what terrible shape his dad is in and how that is wearing down his mom, he struggles, and Johnny naturally struggles on how to help him work through it.
C’mon C’mon is one of those movies that reminds us why we fell in love with film. It is easy to get jaded to cinema when you watch as many as I do (200+ this year alone). However, it all comes back to you when you encounter a picture as human and loving yet not maudlin like this one. Mike Mills has come such a long way from Thumbsucker and has really become a master filmmaker, primarily when his work focuses on people and shies away from the plot. In many ways, this picture felt like the best of Woody Allen’s work, you know, before we learned he was a vile predator. Scenes work perfectly in isolation, even better as they begin to weave the greater character portraits that make up C’mon C’mon.
The choice to film in black and white is also more than just an aesthetic decision. Jesse becomes worried that this vital time he spent with his uncle will be forgotten as he gets older. That’s the brutal truth of life; the further we get from any time in our life, the more it blurs with our past. When it comes to trauma, that can be a gift, softening our memories. However, when you are in a moment that you can feel is shaping you, that makes you a new person when you pass through it; you want to preserve it in amber. Black and white have become associated with the past and memory in our culture, so we can view C’mon C’mon as a memory being made in front of us. As the world becomes more troubled, distances grow due to a myriad of circumstances, Mills reminds us how important it is to preserve those sacred memories so that we can return to them when our souls need them.