Review: 'C'mon C'mon' starring Joaquin Phoenix is a fascinating watch

The Oscar-winning actor plays a radio journalist whose life is fundamentally changed when agrees to look after his nine-year-old nephew

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Woody Norman as Jesse in a scene from 'C'mon C'mon'. Photo: A24
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Joaquin Phoenix’s first film since his Oscar-winning performance in Joker couldn’t be more different to the psychological DC thriller.

Whereas Joker was about how dark and depressing the world can be, C’mon C’mon paints a much more optimistic and empathetic view of mankind. To achieve that, it has to start off at a pretty low point, though.

In C’mon C’mon Phoenix portrays Johnny, a radio journalist who travels around the country interviewing children about their lives and asking them for their thoughts on the future. During a trip to Detroit, Johnny decides to call and reconnect with his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), having not spoken to her for a year after the death of their mother.

Over the course of their discussion, Viv asks Johnny to fly to Los Angeles so that he can watch her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), who's 9, while she goes to Oakland to help her estranged husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), who is struggling with his mental health. When Paul suffers a setback, Viv asks Johnny to look after Jesse for a prolonged period. With work piling up, Johnny takes Jesse to New York where he lives, and the pair soon form a strong bond. But their opposite personalities also cause them to butt heads.

Slow yet always intriguing, C’mon C’mon was only ever going to work if writer and director Mike Mills found a suitable sparring partner for the always riveting Phoenix. Hoffmann deserves praise, as she’s perfectly cast as his sister. The moments where they connect, relate and even argue fizzle with a mesmerising energy. But it’s Norman who is the real revelation, as his precociousness and charm push Phoenix into unseen territory.

The film, directed by Mike Mills, is shot entirely in black and white by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Photo: A24

As you’d expect, Phoenix is also impressive, making Johnny seem warm and inviting when at work, but quick to close up and shut down when his personal life becomes too much. Over the course of the movie, Jesse’s presence helps Johnny to change. Rather than being done in a melodramatic manner, there’s a subtlety to Mills and Phoenix’s depiction that means Johnny’s evolution occurs gradually and isn’t immediately obvious. Nevertheless, it’s still effective.

Like Mills’ previous work, which includes Beginners and 20th Century Women, there’s a compassion and kindness to C’mon C’mon that feels comforting to watch as it grows in its characters.

Mills’ decision to make Johnny a radio journalist, and include several scenes where real people are speaking about the current state of America and their hopes for the future, is key to the film's success. Not only does it make what they say genuinely honest, and thus more resonant, but its funny and even poignant moments come as more of a surprise and hit even harder.

It’s not just the script and performances that make C’mon C’mon such a fascinating watch. There’s also a technical brilliance to the family drama that enhances the aforementioned elements.

'C'mon C'mon'

Director:Mike Mills

Stars:Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman

Rating: 4/5

Most notably, there’s Robbie Ryan’s astounding black and white cinematography. Every frame is so utterly gorgeous to look at that he’s even able to find beauty on dingy New York streets and Los Angeles’ jam-packed motorways. Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s score also plays a key role, too, bringing a rhythm and sweetness to the film.

It’s Phoenix and Norman’s chemistry that really makes C’mon C’mon soar, though. Even during the middle act, when it threatens to become too disjointed and aimless, they’re able to make it feel unique, authentic and, ultimately uplifting. C’mon C’mon’s impact might not strike immediately. Instead, it’s the sort of film that lingers in your head for hours and days after, as your mind catches up to the beauty and heart that's at its core.

C’mon C’mon will be released in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday

Updated: January 25, 2022, 8:12 AM
'C'mon C'mon'

Director:Mike Mills

Stars:Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman

Rating: 4/5