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C’mon C’mon review – Mike Mills’ gorgeously optimistic family drama

This hopeful tearjerker is powered by three extraordinary turns from Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman

There are two repeated refrains in Mike Mills’ utterly wonderful new film, C’mon C’mon, that essentially boil down to “no parent knows what they’re doing” and “no matter how you plan for the future, you can’t guarantee anything.” Though these may seem like simple truisms on paper, they are deployed here with such shimmering, heart-lifting beauty that they feel like entirely new revelations – revelations that will leave you grinning through floods of tears as Mills reveals a beautiful vision of what he hopes both America and masculinity might look like in a better world.

In his first role since his Oscar win for Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio reporter on a country-wide assignment to interview teenagers from various American cities (LA, New York, Detroit, and New Orleans) about their thoughts on the future. It is, admittedly, the sort of lovely journalistic job that only exists in movies, but this initial shot of the fantastical allows Mills to indulge in some brilliant docu-fiction, with the insights of all the kids interviewed feeling deeply genuine and un-coached, not to mention very funny and moving.

Johnny’s trip is interrupted when he gets a phone call from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who he’s been a touch estranged from since the death of their mother and their raging arguments during her last days about how to conduct her palliative care. Her bipolar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) has entered into an extreme manic phase, and she needs Johnny to fly out and take care of her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman) for a few days. Of course, these days turn into weeks and, eventually, Johnny has to start taking Jesse with him on his national tour.

At its barest bones, C’mon C’mon is a rather typical “growing and learning” movie, with Johnny finding his parental spark and emotionally unlocking while imparting life lessons to his young nephew. But in Mills’s hands the material is elevated with beautiful, naturalistic dialogue and the growth of Johnny and Jesse’s relationship taking in a muddle of variably-sized peaks and valleys in a way that feels entirely realistic rather than being tied to a typical plot structure.

Key to this is the astonishing performances from both Phoenix and the young Norman, in whom Mills has found an instant star. He’s able to access a depth of feeling that generally eludes child actors and, in a jaw-dropping twist, is actually British. For a kid to give a performance like this – and through a flawless accent – is a mighty feat for the director, but also evidence of a preternatural talent, reminiscent of the similarly stunning work of Noah Jupe. Phoenix, meanwhile, is at his sweetest and loosest since at least 2014’s Inherent Vice (or perhaps ever), and his chemistry with Norman is just adorable.

Though she has to do a lot of “down the phone” acting, Hoffmann is also extraordinary – she may just steal the entire film, in fact – the twin weights of exhaustion and unconditional love almost physically visible on her sighing shoulders. Mills lets these performances breathe, but that isn’t to say that C’mon C’mon lacks formal ambition. In stripping the various cities of their colours, the crisp and clear black-and-white photography from Robbie Ryan manages to create a sort of unifying American one-ness, while also picking out the elements that make each city and, more importantly, their inhabitants unique. What a gorgeous, moving, optimistic, and perfectly balanced meal of a movie this is.

C'mon C'mon was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 3 December.

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