Writer/director Mike Mills often mine his own experiences for his films, as he did with Beginners and 20th Century Women. This time he was inspired by his own experience of being a first time dad. Interestingly enough, the story is more about a father figure than a biological father, which is something I identify with as I grew up without a father.
The film opens with Johnny, a radio journalist who travels the country with his producing partners to interview kids about their lives and what they think of the future. While in Detroit he calls his sister Viv whom he hasn’t spoken to since their mother’s death from dementia. As it turns out she needs someone to look after her 9-year-old son Jesse while she cares for her estranged husband Paul (Scoot McNairy).
Johnny flies to LA to watch over Jesse, and the two end up spending weeks together instead of days. The bulk of the film shows Johnny getting to know each other and forming a tentative bond as Jesse constantly ask Johnny probing questions about why he is single, etc. I came across Mike Mills interview where he talks about how ‘kids aren’t just silly and cute … there’s actually a certain darkness in them and surprising depth.’ That’s certainly the case here as the adult, in this case, Johnny and some of us in the audience, can learn from if we are paying attention.
There’s something so naturalistic in the way Mills approach his films and he fuses a documentary style with the nonfiction element of the kids interviews. Johnny’s work commitments forces him to take Jesse to the location where he works, from NYC to New Orleans.
DP Robbie Ryan capture the resplendent beauty of each city, the film is filled with a plethora of ‘one perfect shots.’ I notice that the cityscape shots feel expansive (which makes the humans seem small amongst its grand surroundings), but in contrast, the close shots of Johnny & Jesse feel decidedly intimate. It’s as if Mills is distinguishing the relationship between these two individuals VS their relationship with the world. I was curious why they decided to do the film in black and white, but I read an article saying that trash and the more distasteful aspect of the city looks better in b/w than in color. Plus there’s something poetic about black and white films.
You could say this is a coming of age film for both the kid and the adult as they each help each other ‘grow up’ in a way. Of course there’s going to be friction along the way, as evident in the store scene where Johnny thought he’d lost Jesse, which happens again a couple of times. Those scenes where Johnny searches frantically for Jesse are basically the only action/suspense you’d get from this film… it’s defined not the kind of films that rely on action sequences to grab your attention. I for one appreciate the intricate details of this unusual relationship, the honest conversations and the raw emotion they bring. I sometimes get frustrated with both characters as they push each other’s buttons, and also gets lost in their world at times, which is a testament to the immersive quality of Mill’s storytelling .
Apparently they filmed this while Phoenix was doing promos for Joker. It couldn’t be a more different role for him which is a testament to the actor’s amazing versatility. He totally disappears into the role of Johnny in a gentle, sensitive performance that reminds me of one of my fave roles he did in HER. I had hoped Phoenix had been nominated for Oscars this year. I have seen ALL the male nominees’ performances and I’d easily swap out Javier Bardem with Phoenix as he’s not all that extraordinary in Being the Ricardos.
Woody Norman is phenomenal as Jesse, who’s more than able to hold his own against a veteran actor more than three times his age. It’s incredible that he can also match Joaquin’s intensity. I’m even more impressed since I I learned that Woody is British, as he sounds completely American in the film. Gaby Hoffman is terrific here as well as Viv, though I always think of her as Tom Hanks’s son’s best friend in Sleepless In Seattle.
I absolutely adore this movie… it’s an intimate portrait of an unconventional family that genuinely tugs my heartstrings. I wish it had gotten more love this award season. I think this is the kind of film people would remember fondly years from now, and new people who just discover it would wonder just why they didn’t watch it sooner. I definitely will be looking forward to whatever else Mike Mills would do next.
Have you seen C’Mon C’Mon? Well, what did YOU think?