Parenting is hard, especially when you’re thrust into the role of full-time caregiver to an inquisitive child. That’s the situation that radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in when he agrees to look after his sister’s (Gabby Hoffman) nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman). Suddenly, he’s confronted with unpredictable feelings and a barrage of questions that he doesn’t always know how to answer.
Mike Mills’s (20th Century Women) homage to the bonds between children and adults is characteristically naturalistic and more concerned with eliciting emotion than conveying a conventional plot. The meandering slice-of-life narrative is augmented by interviews with children articulating their thoughts about the future (recorded by Johnny and his trusty microphone) and recited passages from sources like documentaries and children’s books, accompanied by on-screen citations.
Presented in stark yet beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the relationship between Johnny and Jesse builds through intimate conversations that feel spontaneous and only vaguely scripted. Shedding the malice he personified in Joker, Phoenix exudes tenderness and humour as a flawed man who is earnestly trying to learn about his nephew as he unpacks his own midlife baggage. But it’s newcomer Norman who is most captivating, lending a youthful authenticity to a character whose precocious tendencies sometimes veer into heightened territory.
Joaquin Phoenix sheds the malice of Joker to exude tenderness and humour
Set to a softly-swelling soundtrack composed and performed by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, C’mon C’mon revels in the raw feelings of its characters. The film’s latter half feels engineered to turn on the waterworks, but Mills’ thoughtful approach to his weighty subject matter somehow avoids being overly cloying. Look past the unorthodox narrative and you’ll find a touching story about how our relationships can provide solace and personal growth – whether we’re in our formative years or decades removed from them.
In US theaters Nov 19 and UK cinemas Dec 3.