C'mon C'mon speaks its own language, a movie about questions that can't be answered and the man and boy who are stuck trying to deal with them.
Director Mike Mills introduces us to Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a disheveled, preoccupied man who volunteers to help his sister (Gaby Hoffmann), a woman who's struggling to take care of her nine-year-old son (Woody Norman). Hoffmann's Viv also is trying to keep her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy) from totally derailing during one of his crises.
Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) seems less interested in mental illness than in how adults and children communicate. How does one talk to a nine year old who raises the subject of abortion and who wants to know why his uncle isn't married?
Given its focus on the adult/child relationship, C'mon C'mon easily could have been overwhelmed by sentiment. It's not. Credit Phoenix who may be constitutionally unable to do warm and cuddly. He makes it clear that Johnny might be as lost as his nephew.
Throughout the film, Johnny can be seen working on what appears to be a radio project. He asks a diverse variety of children what they think the future will be like and records their answers. He also records his reactions to their answers.
Shooting in black and white, Mills punctuates his story with unexpected views of the cities in which Johnny finds himself, principally Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans.
Johnny, who hasn't seen his nephew Jesse in more than a year because of a conflict with his sister, first meets the boy in Los Angeles, where the boy's harried mother faces numerous challenges.
Mom leaves Jesse in Johnny’s care when she travels to San Francisco to seek help for her husband. When Johnny has to return to New York for work, he proposes taking Jesse with him.
Viv initially resists but she has little choice but to allow Johnny to travel to New York where Jesse helps him record the natural sounds of the city. He's opening the boy to the larger world, but also maintaining a distance from Jesse. Johnny doesn't try to shape everything that Jesse encounters.
Not surprisingly, Johnny must convince Jesse that he's safe with an uncle he hardly knows. To complicate matters, Jesse has ways of getting on adult nerves, launching ceaseless barrages of questions and observations.
Mills places Johnny’s interviews with kids throughout the movie. He dedicates to "D-Man" Bryant, a nine year old who Johnny interviews and who later was killed. The kids are real and give the movie a documentary flavor.
With unruly hair and a bit of a gut, Phoenix conveys the confusion of a man who seems to be turning to children to find answers that have eluded him, and in the end, the story gets under your skin with its collection of awkward conversations, adult anxiety, and testing behaviors from a kid whose world has been shaken.
The film owes much of its success to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who gets close to the film's children without intruding on them. He creates a world that feels both naturalistic and unfamiliar, just the right laboratory for this kind of cinematic experiment.
Norman gives one of those kid performances that makes you wonder how Mills obtained it. Jesse seems entirely unaffected -- even when he's being self-consciously shrewd. And like most kids, he can be both endearing and, yes, annoying. Jesse has yet to learn the art of self-censorship.
The brief encounter between Johnny and Jesse captures the kind of intimate breakthrough that's possible when crisis strikes and a great gap of vulnerability opens, presenting itself as a possible moment of grace -- at least when viewed in retrospect.