The rapturous news is that we have Joaquin Phoenix back. After his Oscar-winning and utterly disheartening performance in Joker, I’m not going to lie — I feared we’d lost him forever to a future of edgelord iconography. If you look at his collective work (and I’m specifically including To Die For, The Master, The Immigrant, Her, Inherent Vice and You Were Never Really Here), it’s not an exaggeration to say he’s one of the most consistently interesting actors in the business today. And that’s why the brick wall of Joker was such a giant flashing neon warning sign. So if nothing else, C’mon C’mon is a soothing soak of nervy kindness.
Phoenix delivers in a role that could just as easily have been an indie take on “cool dad” tropes. He’s alive and frustrated and deeply human, doing the thing — and I don’t even know if it’s a conscious choice — where you can see the toll of being human, being a flawed organism, in his eyes, and striving to be more than just that. It works just as well in director Mike Mills’ digital black-and-white as it does in any other Phoenix film.
That protean skill this actor has, of blending into a space, defines much of C’mon C’mon. Phoenix’s Johnny finds himself the best possible option for his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), who’s trying to find a way to care for her precocious son Jesse (Woody Norman) while simultaneously trying to get her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy) into a proper care facility. (McNairy gets short shrift from the script but nevertheless makes a devastating impression as a person adrift in his own body and life.) Johnny isn’t exactly meant to be a critique of nascent Peter Pan-ism, but he’s definitely meant to exhibit some manchild tendencies. Your patience with him may vary, but there’s an aspirational — in the good sense of the word — empathy to Johnny that feels real, and ragged. Jesse is sometimes charming and other times exasperating, one of those kids who evokes all the emotional responses as they figure out who they are and who they’re going to be. You will find yourself slipping into cringe at past remembrances of how you were as a kid.
The skeleton that the film coalesces around is Johnny’s current project, an audio documentary that asks children all over the country what they think about the future. If you’re wondering if taking care of Jesse is going to help Johnny become a better interviewer for the youth of today, you likely aren’t familiar with writer-director Mills’ oeuvre of kindhearted human drama. And if this aspect of the film hooks you, I can’t recommend enough the new film Futura — coming sometime soon from the lovable freaks at Grasshopper Films — which is a documentary asking Italian teens their thoughts on similar subjects. It’s a lot rawer and more wrenching, and it pulls far fewer punches … because Europe.
C’mon C’mon doesn’t cast its net as wide as Mills did with 2016’s 20th Century Women or 2010’s Beginners, but its modest aims make its impact all the more felt. It is a comfy cable-knit sweater of a movie, a teary hug from someone whose arms make you feel safe. And it’s very good to have Joaquin Phoenix back.