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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

C’mon, C’mon, review: Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly sympathetic in this sensational chamber piece

  • 15 cert, 108 min. Dir: Mike Mills

The writer-director Mike Mills has what you might call a chilled work rate – we get about one film from him every five years, the last of which was the marvellous 20th Century Women in 2016. However slowly his projects coalesce, the process is well worth it: each Mills film comes out fully formed, teeming with character, and impressively sure of what humane insights it wants to unlock.

Glistening in black-and-white thanks to its lenser extraordinaire, Robbie Ryan, C’mon C’mon is a particularly intimate joy. Trust Mills to coax from Joaquin Phoenix the least pushy performance he’s ever given, while hardly letting the Oscar-winner slack off: he does all the tiny things in this pristine drama perfectly. He’s Johnny, a single guy in his 40s who works in radio, and is going around America talking to teenagers about their hopes and fears for the future.

A year before the film starts, Johnny lost his mother, after a long and traumatic slide into dementia. This triggered many a blazing row with his younger sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), about their different attitudes to palliative care. 

They’ve barely spoken since. On the anniversary, Johnny picks up the phone to Viv in Los Angeles, for an awkward ice-breaker of a conversation with an unexpected sequel: Johnny’s nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) needs looking after, while Viv helps the boy’s bipolar dad Paul (Scoot McNairy) through a serious mental health crisis.

What ensues is one of those bonding sessions between an adult and child in which they have equal amounts to learn about each other and themselves. Johnny feels a great deal, but simply isn’t used to sharing those feelings, and Jesse keeps poking away at his sore spots.

There was a girlfriend who walked out because they weren’t doing each other any good – a tale as old as time Johnny tries to sum up while lying in bed. This bit is so Mills it hurts: inarticulate but hilariously bang on for anyone with a pulse and a sex drive.

Viv’s absence grows so lengthy that the pair hit the road for Johnny’s work, meaning Jesse gets to see New York, New Orleans, Detroit. You could call this film a city symphony, except it’s more like a frisky double concerto for bassoon and piccolo.

Phoenix has rarely been more relatable, seeming to have settled since Joker into a more rumpled middle age: there’s something Philip Seymour Hoffman-ish about his purring control of the tone here. 

Mills works wonders with Norman, too, an English child actor best-known for Poldark, who embodies one of the most believable kids on screen in ages – exhaustingly curious, bouncing around like a pinball. His habit of intentionally skedaddling to get Johnny in trouble does not get cuter with repetition, but the obvious damage of having a father on whom he can’t rely makes every bit of acting out feel motivated.

A lesser film might have neglected Viv to cosy up with these two, but Mills has no such intentions. There’s space during all the phone calls, as Jesse cavorts in and out of Johnny’s eyeline, for Hoffmann (Transparent, Girls) to do sensational work as a born worrier with the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

Puzzling out what’s up between these siblings, the film uses Jesse to lever the issues open, but manages to do this with disarming self-awareness: the kid is so used to his mother’s psychobabble he conducts whole conversations just like a therapist would. 

Though it was shot before the pandemic, the grown-up anxieties of this story only have greater resonance because of all that Covid has wrought. While it’s fully grounded as a family portrait, overlaid on it still is that type of cosmic optimism which makes Mills’s work so lovely. I’m not even sure we fully deserve it, but it would be sheer masochism to turn it down.

In cinemas from December 3

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