starring: joaquin phoenix, woody norman, gabby hoffman, and scoot mcnairy
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
When his sister asks him to look after her son, a radio journalist embarks on a cross-country trip with his energetic nephew to show him life away from Los Angeles.
C'mon C'mon is an American drama written and directed by Mike Mills, known most recently for 2016’s 20th Century Women and the 2019 short film I Am Easy to Find coinciding with the album release of the same name by the band The National. C'mon C'mon is led by Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and the young Woody Norman, in his first leading role, as 9-year-old Jesse.
Johnny is a middle-aged, divorced and childless radio journalist working on a project about interviewing teenagers and children regarding their perceptions of the world, the future and their lives.
A call with his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) puts pause on Johnny’s life for a spell, as she asks him to look after her son, Jesse, for a few days so she can travel with her husband out-of-town to receive help in his struggle with mental illness. Johnny probably feels like he has a good rapport with kids, having been working successfully on his project for a while. Jesse upends this notion pretty much immediately: he doesn't engage with Johnny and his interviewing questions, throwing the man off straight away, and behaves sometimes in ways that, on their face, Johnny finds a bit weird.
Even though Johnny struggles with being the primary caregiver to a kid he doesn't know, and with the growing realisation that this all doesn't have an end date any more due to complications with Jesse’s father’s treatment, Johnny and Jesse start to connect; a bond forms over wrestling, recording gear, staying up too late, becoming something much more deep and profound.
A film project that will hinge on a lead performance of a child is always going to be a tough proposition; From casting, to restrictions around filming hours and availability of the young actors around schooling. Mills recalled in an interview that Phoenix said to him early on that they weren't going to find a kid who could do everything they needed, that he’d believe it when he saw it.
I imagine they must have felt incredibly lucky finding Woody Norman, who was at the time a 9-year-old British actor. Woody’s character Jesse is a wise-beyond-his-years kid, smart and idiosyncratic, Mills pulled from his own life and relationship with his young child to write the screenplay and shape the character of Jesse. However, it really is Norman who brings the character to life. His Jesse is perceptive, inquisitive, irritating and charming - at times all at once.
The Dessner brothers of The National provided the score to C'mon C'mon, with their work bringing further power and depth to an otherwise already emotionally nuanced screenplay.
The black-and-white presentation was a wonderful creative choice, reducing distraction from an already stripped back story about the relationship between an uncle and his nephew. The cinematography is also gorgeous, with impressive establishing shots of the various U.S cities the film spends time, and a proclivity to highlight their uniqueness all adding to the beautiful look of C'mon C'mon.
C'mon C'mon is an affecting and at times fraught story of the development of a meaningful connection between a man and his estranged nephew, and how this relationship comes to impact both of their lives.