Humanity is flawed. After all, we are destroying our planet, subjugating some people to poverty and oppression, and we treat people who are different from us with a suspicious disrespect. But yet, humanity is filled with intelligent, caring, and loving people who would do anything for the ones they care about. Never have I felt more positive about humanity than when leaving C’MON C’MON, one of the biggest surprises of 2021. The film provides further evidence that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our best actors, while it also contains some stellar supporting performances of the highest possible caliber. Rarely does a movie cross the presence of theater screens with relationships so pure and real, and with the magical things about everyday life on full display.
Phoenix plays a documentary filmmaker who is traveling to certain American cities and interviewing the youth about their perspective on their lives, the future of their generation, and the state of humanity in general. The film opens with a montage of the kids of today talking about their hopes and fears of how the Earth has been left for their generation, and throughout the movie these interviews are returned to, giving the personal story some much-needed perspective. Phoenix’s character Johnny has to take a detour from his interviews to take care of his nephew Jesse (the incredible Woody Norman), who is left at home when his mother/Johnny’s sister (Gaby Hoffmann) has to take care of her severely bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy). However, Johnny has to get back to New York City to interview more subjects for his work, so much to his mother’s dismay, he decides to take Jesse to New York with him, starting a road-trip full of self-discovery and realization.
Mike Mills directs and writes C’MON C’MON, the first movie of his since 2016’s 20th Century Women, and he gives audiences an experience worth waiting for. Mills shoots the film in black and white, yet not once does it feel like something from the experience is lacking — in fact, the details of each shot are even more noticeable with the gorgeous cinematography from Robbie Ryan. Mills proves in C’MON C’MON that, like in his other recent critically acclaimed hits, he can write a human story that speaks to the times like no other. This film is perfectly suited to today’s landscape of volatility and division, and cuts through the noise to deliver a positive message of empathy despite all of the hardship. Each character’s unique experience in this movie feels so grounded that it almost seems as though watching the film is equivalent to meeting them in real life.
All of Mills’ characters in C’MON C’MON are facing some sort of intense struggle that takes a lot of energy out of them, yet they persevere and find happiness in the small moments with the people they love. Johnny, for example, is dealing with crippling loss while also dealing with a recent divorce, both of which have left him all alone. Phoenix plays this role with the usual expertise that he brings to every film, giving his character room for the deep emotional complexity without overplaying it or making it feel any more or less than real. Meanwhile, Johnny’s nephew Jesse must deal with the fact that his father is not doing well mentally and his mother must be away to take care of him. Woody Norman is exceptional as Jesse, smashing any expectations that could possibly be leveled for a 12-year-old actor and stealing scenes from Phoenix every chance he gets.
Another theme that impressed me in C’MON C’MON is the extent to which Mills emphasizes mothers as being heroes of our society. Much of the work of raising our society’s youth and shaping the generations to come is left to the moms, and they go through hell just to get to the following day at times. Gaby Hoffmann plays Viv, Jesse’s mother, exceptionally and is a clear frontrunner for best supporting actress at the Oscars this year in my eyes. The stress and the constant fatigue of being a parent is felt in her amazing performance and the way in which the script highlights her sacrifice is noble, heartwarming and will make every sane person want to thank the mothers in their life.
The glorious thing about C’MON C’MON is not just the way it emphasizes the struggles of the characters in this movie, but the way it expresses empathy and hope for the common human struggles of connection, finding happiness, and creating meaning in life. The movie is roughly 15 percent documentary and 85 percent dramatic, so the hardships that Johnny, Jesse, and the rest of the characters face are put into perspective through the eyes of tomorrow’s adults in eloquent fashion. This evolves the characters beyond fiction to becoming vessels of ordinary people, dealing with these same issues that one may run into on the street. By the end of this film, I felt more optimistic about humanity’s future and the everyday person walking the streets than I felt when walking into the theater, and there’s not much more I can ask for from a movie. C’MON C’MON instills a reality in viewers that is rarely seen in film — one that causes the audience to walk out and treat each other with more kindness. I can recall no other effect that better encapsulates the heart of filmmaking.