Living as the observer in Mike Mills’ ‘C’mon C’mon’

Mike Mills explores the future from the minds of children

Mason Hickok, Web Editor

Sitting down at one of my favorite local theaters on a Friday night, I did not expect that I would utterly fall in love with the film I would be watching. In his latest film, “C’mon C’mon,” Mike Mills navigates the inner workings of children’s perspective on their global futures. Mills explores this through the lens of an audio documentary — its characters: an uncle and nephew.

Mike Mills’ previous films have often dealt with the relationships of parents and their children. Mills himself has spoken before of the matriarchal influences on his upbringing, a seminal time that had the women in his life teaching him what it means to be a man. “C’mon C’mon” tackles these ideas while exploring the curiosity and the imagination of children. The fact that documentary aesthetics are present in the film is almost meta in nature — a film within a film. From the beginning, it’s palpable that “C’mon C’mon” is rooting itself in perspectives, specifically, from the cast of real children that were interviewed for the film. 

“C’mon C’mon” follows Johnny –– played beautifully by Joaquin Phoenix –– a traveling radio journalist who offers to care for his estranged sister’s son, Jessie –– played bravely by the young Woody Norman. Johnny offers to take care of Jessie when the former’s sister must leave to care for Jessie’s father, who’s battling mental health issues. 

Mills’ filmmaking is like a breath of fresh air to long-emptied lungs. In a panel discussion, Mills spoke of the idea of observation present in the film. For one, Johnny plays the observer in his interviews with the children. In another example, Robbie Ryan’s camera sits in a doorway listening to a conversation. This technique of utilizing doorways harkens back to the films of Yasujirō Ozu and, more recently, Kogonada. This device replicates the very idea of watching a movie. 

Additionally, the film stands out as it was filmed in black and white. Mills stated that the choice to film this way evokes a sense of difference; it pulls the viewer from reality. In addition, Aaron & Bryce Dessner’s score for the film is equally warm and inviting.

The performances in the film feel like real people with complicated personalities, nuances and quirks. Norman’s portrayal of Jessie is thoughtful and sensitive; the young actor’s ability is incredible. Gaby Hoffman plays Viv; mother to Jessie, sister to Johnny. Her portrayal of a mother torn between two worlds is filled with conviction and urgency. Finally, as mentioned, Phoenix plays the observer in both his interviews and his relationship with Jessie.

“C’mon C’mon” occupies the intimate space of being with a child. It is a parent bathing them, tucking them into bed and finishing with a spontaneous bedtime story. For me, it’s the memories that I made with my uncle when he would visit. It’s the beauty of capturing relationships, curiosity and conversations.

“C’mon C’mon” is now available on most streaming platforms.

Runtime 109 minutes