‘C’mon C’mon’: Joaquin Phoenix Shines & Empathy Flows In Mike Mills' Sublime, Micro-Traumatic Family Drama [Telluride Review]

Having already excavated his personal experiences to tell intimate, insightful, and emotionally translucent stories about fathers and sons (“Beginners”), matriarchs raising boys (“20th Century Women”), and the way we’re all amateurs fumbling through life, sensitively attuned writer/director Mike Mills turns his tender filmmaking gaze towards children and the adult/child relationship in his latest film, the sublime “Cmon Cmon.” It’s yet another perceptive, impeccably crafted winner in an informal trilogy about family, what makes us human, and how people struggle every day to do their best amidst the many challenges and pains of life.  

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Vaguely reminiscent of Wim Wenders’Alice In The Cities”—a journalist is saddled with a young girl and lets her tag along on his road trip—the filmmaker’s dynamic work shares little else with the film and ultimately is its own very Mike Mills thing: deeply human, gently probing, sharply observed, and luminously emotional. “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a warm and thoughtful “This American Life”-esque radio documentary journalist, asks his subjects in his latest story. In tumultuous, anxious times like these, the horizon seems bleak, but Johnny’s new project is traveling across the country and interviewing various kids about what they think the uncertain future will hold. And the answers, like most attentive observations from teens and children when lightly, non-judgmentally asked, are surprising, still hopeful, and of their present moment, not loaded with baggage from another generation’s past.

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However, Johnny’s project eventually becomes disrupted when he reconnects with his estranged sister Viv (a fabulous Gaby Hoffmann). The grief of their mother’s death, the difficult dementia that preceded it, and the conflicting ways they handled it alienated the siblings, but Johnny suddenly calls out of the blue, the day of their mother’s death. While it’s lovely to reconnect, Viv is struggling. Her mentally ill classical musician ex-husband (Scott McNairy) is going through another manic episode, and she has to leave Los Angeles to tend to him in Oakland and try, yet again to coax him into seeking help. Realizing she’s in a pinch and trying to help out, Johnny offers to stay in L.A. to look after her troubled 9-year-old son, Jesse (a radiantly authentic Woody Norman).

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But what is supposed to be a few days gets extended as Viv tries to figure out sustainable care for her sick spouse and what ensues is a cross-country trip; Johnny taking his nephew along for the ride as he travels to Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and various places to conduct his interviews. It’s supposed to be an adventure, but Johnny is quickly thrown into a world of speed-parenting, learning fast and on the go, which accelerates the emotional dramas. Along for the ride, at times, is Roxanne (Real-life NYC Radio Labs correspondent Molly Webster), Johnny’s colleague, and Fernando (Twitter comedian turned actor Jaboukie Young-White), an au-pair to watch Jesse when the adults are working. But it’s really a two-hander between Phoenix, Norman, but also a third in Viv’s absent, distant, disembodied voice, grateful her brother is taking care of her son and holding his hand through the “, yeah, that’s what that’s like, dude,” explanations about the emotional complexities of navigating a sensitive and imaginative boy. The pair bond and connect in unexpected ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

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Shot in black in white by Robbie Ryan (“American Honey,” “The Favourite”), initially a curious choice, given Mills’ splendorous use of color in the past, this classic choice eventually reveals itself to illuminate the movie’s evocative ideas of memory: how we live in the past, worry about the future and are always trying to stay present in the moment. Scored by The National siblings Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the duo bring an affecting dreaminess to the proceedings, which only further complements that idea of reflection, reminiscence, but also dolorous longing.

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Mills is so adept at expressing the delicate aches of existential melancholy, the everyday discomforts of being alive. If micro-aggressions are a thing, Mills arguable traffics in micro-traumas: the little disappointments, minor heartbreaks, disillusionment, hurts, and emotional bruises and bumps we sustain each day that affects our self-worth, especially in relation to our children, siblings, spouses, and loved ones. And all of this is wonderfully and wistfully threaded through “Cmon Cmon.”

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Via the disorienting transition that Johnny makes to parent and caretaker, and the confusing sadness Jesse feels without his mom, Mills wants to communicate universal things we all desperately feel: that we all want to be loved, that we all want to feel connected to one another, that we feel sometimes misunderstood, that we all want to be seen and heard—the latter of which is often difficult for children marched around by overbearing adults. Mills is so emotionally intuitive, and his observations about children’s feelings and how they’re just as legitimate and worthy of respect as yours.

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“It’s fine, not to be ok!” Phoenix bellows at one point in his exquisitely soulful performance, a heartfelt turn, in a kind and heartfelt movie. Unsurprisingly if you know his compassionate work, Mills’ latest will make you cry, will make you laugh, will make you feel less lonely in the world, and remind you we’re all novices just trying to cope and make it through the day alive in one piece (a deeply parental pov).

With “Cmon Cmon,” Mills solidifies his position as one of our greatest cinematic humanists, filmmaking empaths, and chroniclers of emotive struggle. Soothingly curious about the human condition and affectionately inquisitive about what makes children tick, the emotional intelligence of his movie once again radiates off the charts (bet you all the money in the world, he’s a great, patient father). Poetic and bittersweet, “Cmon Cmon” is a special film, one that asks us to recognize the mistakes we make, the people we wound, the feelings we hurt, and to maybe give ourselves a break in the process and hold on for what better future tomorrow may bring. [A]

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