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'C'mon C'mon' review: Joaquin Phoenix leads one of year's best

The Oscar winner is relatable, sweet and yes, fun, in writer-director Mike Mills' intimate look at life and childhood.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Joaquin Phoenix has never been more engaging than he is in "C'mon C'mon."

The four-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner, for his deeply affected turn in 2019's chilling "Joker") is at his warmest and most personable — characteristics not usually associated with the actor — in Mike Mills' big-hearted drama, in which he plays a radio journalist working on a project about the way children see the world. Phoenix has been a steady presence in American film since he starred in "Space Camp" 35 years ago, but in "C'mon C'mon," he shows a range and level of humanity that he has rarely showed before. His performance isn't a revelation, but rather a reconfirmation that he's one of the very best talents working in movies today. 

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in "C'mon C'mon."

And "C'mon C'mon" is a lovely showcase for him. Mills, with just his fourth film (and first since 2016's "20th Century Women"), paints an affectionate, poetic portrait of youth and wisdom, in a world where everybody is just trying to figure things out for themselves. Adults don't have the answers any more than kids do, but they're grown so they get to make most of the decisions. And hopefully the ones they make are correct. 

The opening of "C'mon C'mon" unfolds in Detroit, with Johnny (Phoenix) and a small crew interviewing schoolchildren in the city about the world they live in. He asks them questions about their lives, their futures, their hopes and dreams. The intimacy of their answers — they're real kids, not actors, being asked real questions — is representative of the tone of the film, which is loose and engaging, thoughtful and introspective.

Johnny is single and uncommitted — he's still reeling from a breakup years prior — and he travels to Los Angeles to visit his sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffman, sensational) and her son, Jesse (Woody Norman, a knockout). Jesse's father, Paul (Scoot McNairy) is dealing with some psychological issues and heads off to a treatment facility in Oakland, and Viv needs to go there to be with him. So she asks Johnny to watch Jesse for a few days.

Immediately, the pair bonds. There are hiccups — Jesse is a quirky kid, and he loves to blast classical music on Saturday mornings and communicate through role-playing — but they get along because the buy-in is low and Johnny isn't called on for much in the way of responsibility. He lets Jesse play with his recording equipment, they hang out on the beach, and he gets to be Fun Uncle for a few days. Things are good.  

When Viv needs to stay with Paul a few days longer, things get complicated. Johnny invites Jesse to come to New York with him, which Viv rightly scolds him for doing. Who asks a 9-year-old if they want to go to New York? But he ends up going with him and their relationship grows and changes, and eventually they go to New Orleans together.

Jesse is a thoughtful kid doing his best to figure out the world and his place in it. Johnny, in his own way, is still figuring the world out, too. They're on a journey together, a journey through the human experience, which we're all taking at our own pace. 

Interspersed throughout the relaxed narrative are a series of interviews with kids about their thoughts on the world, and their views are treated with dignity and respect, not condescension or flippancy. Mills gives these kids a voice, and he captures the raw honesty of the time in life when things are just starting to come into focus. "C'mon C'mon" doesn't have all the answers, but it asks good questions. 

Filmed in intimate black-and-white, "C'mon C'mon" is a small, quiet movie that tackles big topics. Phoenix, Norman and Hoffman are all outstanding — Hoffman's performance is especially impressive, since most of her scenes are of her alone speaking into a phone — and the film's mixture of fiction and reality gives it a sense of authenticity. "C'mon C'mon" doesn't need to make a lot of noise to be heard. Sometimes, there's more value in listening.


'C'mon C'mon'


Rated R: for language

Running time: 108 minutes

In theaters