Every inch of C’mon C’mon wishes to be universal and transcendent. It’s in the intrusive musicality, it’s in the black and white photography, it’s in the frequent cutaways to serious interviews with children about weighty topics, it’s in the conversations (every conversation) which dance around issues and invoke large themes. For so many, this has really hit home. For me, it was incredibly annoying.
In Mike Mills’ latest, we focus on Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his relationship with his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Due to familial complications, Johnny has to look after Jesse in New York, involving him in a previously child-free life and getting a taste of childhood. This is played out in concert with a strained relationship with Jesse mother, and Johnny’s sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann). Johnny tries to parent and we occasionally cut to conversations between him and Viv about this process, about their relationship and about Jesse. When we are not between these characters, we are watching children (mostly) be interviewed in NPR style about huge topics, to facilitate Johnny’s job as a radio journalist.
In this collection of recurring segments we are supposed to see the substance of life. However, the film is so persistently reaching for importance that it fails to match that with humanity. The main issue is the radio segments, which seemingly only exist to make everything feel important, to widen the scope of the film. The goal is to find everything in the everyday, the issue is the film never quite evokes the everyday, or doesn’t do so convincingly. Intent overrides execution and the result is something very well meaning but very mechanical. Everything is pushed too far, beyond the point of verité and towards melodrama. The music really doesn’t help, as transcendent soundscapes do far too much work. The sounds all push towards cosmic and heavenly, or are just known classical standards. It all derives from the language of high-culture, of the philosophical and the cerebral. But it brings a persistent falsity and just feels like too much.
The black and white photography is another interesting point. It again brings in a philosophical and artistic tone that is in keeping with the film’s aim, but yet again feels like a step too far. It is yet another element that is there to be arty that doesn’t bring much. In fact, the attempts at evoking reality would be better suited by conventional colour photography. It is one of many elements that, by themselves, aren’t an issue but, when brought together paint an overwhelming picture. This includes Phoenix’s performance, which just feels like a calculated career turn after Joker, a show that he can still do indie and small. He isn’t bad but he doesn’t overly convince. This is, perhaps, because the film doesn’t give him much to do. The script is far too focused on external and universal reference that it misses an intimate humanity.
In the end, the affectations overwhelm the film. It all feels very calculated. The child exists to show the man humanity, to open his eyes to more. Every element is in service of something, which is great, but every element is so obviously in service of something else (and does little outside of this). Our central child is relegated to a plot device and a lot of conversations are had merely around things, but little is actually done. At points, it is touching and captures something human. Most of the time, it is trying too hard to do so and layers on a falsity that overwhelms a necessary reality. For many, most perhaps, this will all come together and give a transcendent experience. For some, myself included, you may be too overwhelmed by the ingredients to appreciate the dish itself.