Over-rehearsing kid performers, according to Steven Spielberg, might lead to a case of the cutes. However, very natural child performers and their talented adult co-stars in gorgeous black-and-white films in love with their own emotional literacy may pose an even greater risk.
C’mon C’mon, directed by Mike Mills, is a swooningly photographed drama about a radio journalist and adorable middle-aged guy named Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who is part of the great tradition of journalists in the movies in that his employer assigns him only one large, seemingly open-ended task. He and a colleague are touring the United States as part of a large oral history project, interviewing high-school students about their lives, families, communities, and futures (that beckoningly enigmatic future is what gives the film its title).
Johnny is unmarried, having recently broken up with a long-term girlfriend: he is intelligent, witty, dishevelled, and paunchy – and an excellent listener to the kids he admires for their honesty and intelligence.
But Johnny has a significant family problem: he hasn’t spoken to his adored sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) in a year, since their mother died; Viv is furious with him for being careless and failing to perform any of the emotional hard work. But now Viv needs him: her estranged partner Paul (Scoot McNairy) is bipolar and having a terrible episode, and Viv has to get him into a facility as soon as possible.
She requires someone to care for their precocious eight-year-old son Jesse, who is performed by Woody Norman in a supernaturally heartfelt performance.
So Johnny, Jesse’s wacky cool uncle, offers to take on the responsibility of being a real adult for a change and fly Jesse to New York while he conducts another round of high-school interviews; he quickly learns how difficult it is to be a parent. (There are two instances in which he loses Jesse in a crowd and then rapidly locates him.)
Johnny records reflecting audio-diary entries with the same big fluffy microphone he uses for work, and this will be a developing experience for them both. He occasionally reads aloud from fine books, the authors and names of which are displayed in austere sans-serif capital letters on the screen.
C’mon C’mon is a nicely-made film featuring some excellent dialogue between Johnny and Jesse, as well as Johnny and Viv, who is often irritated. The monochromatic cinematography of Robbie Ryan is wonderful, but it makes every scene look like a page from the same pricey coffee-table book.
But there was something a little self-congratulatory about these gorgeous Manhattan vistas paired with Johnny’s quasi-single-dad position that reminded me (not unpleasantly) of Woody Allen dictating his novel to the strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The kids Johnny interviews are primarily real people talking about their real experiences, and in many respects, these are the film’s strongest moments – however presenting their testimonials encased in an elaborate emotional fiction feels coerced. The film is gently draining the authenticity of these young individuals.
The performances are good, especially Hoffman’s, whose character is put to the test by Johnny and Jesse’s immaturity; Phoenix has sympathy and charm, and the camera indulges every move and gesture from the amazingly schooled Norman, though the comedy in their odd-couple relationship always seems to be headed for a hug rather than a laugh. A monochrome daydream of midlife yearning, it’s an amazingly produced film, nearly a machine for getting accolades.