Joaquin Phoenix and “endearing” don’t often make it into the same sentence. But watch his soft-spoken, laid-back turn in “C’mon, C’mon,” a movie about a midlife discovery of just how hard parenting is. “Endearing” is the only word that fits. Working with an adorable moppet will do that for you.
The latest dramedy from the director of “Beginners” and “20th Century Women” is a black and white essay on childhood trauma, memory and family — one teetering on the brink, but with an ill-prepared uncle willing to pitch in to keep others from tumbling into the abyss. Quiet and obsessed with sound, indulgent and wise, brittle but softened by love, it’s another sensitive and humane feature from Mike Mills, a filmmaker who makes “family” and “listening” a focus of all of his films.
That’s what Johnny does for a living — listening, He’s a public radio reporter, traveling the country, interviewing the children of immigrants for a documentary he and others are producing. He treats the kids with respect, never talking down when he asks “When you think about the future” questions about their lives and their prospects. Best of all, he listens to what they have to say.
Another person he’s hearing these days is his sister, Viv (played by Gaby Hoffman). They live on opposite coasts, and haven’t been close of late. But the anniversary of their mother’s death has them chatting. He catches up on how little Jesse (Woody Norman) is doing. And that’s when he gets a hint about a situation Viv has to deal with regarding her concert musician husband.
Viv has to go to Paul (Scoot McNairy), who has taken a job in Oakland. She lives in greater LA. And without words being said, we can tell Johnny knows why she can’t take Jesse with her, why she needs to go and why her trip might take time.
Next thing we know, laid-back, single and childless 40something Johnny is volunteering to take care of her son.
Mom describes Jesse as “a whole little person, now.” He’s nine and indulged way beyond what most families would consider “normal.” Jesse has been warned that Johnny is “a bit awkward.” Johnny? He has no idea what’s coming.
“Why aren’t you married,” the tactless tyke asks? “Why did she (his mother) stop talking to you?”
Jesse sports an unruly mop and a lot of needs. He needs to be read to at bedtime, is fond of sleeping in the grownups’ bed, loves hiding from caregivers when they’re out in public, has to be kept away from sugar and simply must be addressed as an “orphan kid” from next door who play-acts this whole morbid thing about Viv (later Johnny) having children that died, which is why he wants to come stay with them.
Johnny’s mild-mannered meltdown, when it finally comes, is overdue.
“Why does everything have to be like this weird eccentric thing that you do? Why can’t you be NORMAL?”
If he’d thought rather than snapping, Johnny could have come up with a reasonable answer by himself, one that might have made him hold his tongue. All those soundless flashback arguments we’ve seen between the siblings weren’t just about their dying mother. Some of them were about whatever else was going on in Viv’s house. Paul has “manic” problems of his own. We’re seen the apple. Guess what the tree is like.
I love the way Mills gives Johnny “bonding” ideas that come from his work. Soon, Jesse is as obsessed with “getting sound” (recording audio environments like the beach, skate parks and the like) as his uncle.
Having Johnny read aloud from the (credited) parenting books, comic books and essays Viv keeps around the house (“Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” by Jaqueline Rose, “The Bipolar Bear Family” comic, by Angela Holloway) is a clever way of getting Big Themes into the story without having the characters dive into exposition.
Johnny’s endless parade of interviews with kids looks like a Hollywood child actor casting call. If they aren’t actors, they certainly were cast for being the prettiest girls and boys in their age range available. Nary a zit, crooked tooth or fashion-impaired outfit in the lot. But even that will play as “real” to regular listeners to NPR, which tends to skew urban, overly-articulate and coastal in the people it reports on and listeners it caters to.
Young Master Norman, a British child actor, is very good at taking Jesse right to the cusp of “insufferable.” He makes acting-out look obvious. He’s convincingly precocious, which is the way the movies treat almost all children. We don’t need the “I don’t really have friends. I mostly talk with adults” confession. That’s a trap even an indie icon like Mike Mills can’t help but fall into.
But Phoenix and Hoffman really sell “C’mon, C’mon,” settling into “siblings” with such ease that even their phone conversations have a lived-in familiarity — Johnny admitting he shouted at the brat, Viv relieved that it’s not just her.
That relationship — the childless and clueless but willing to learn, and the “finally somebody realizes what mom’s go through” sibling — makes this warm but melancholy movie something to be cherished, another “family relationships” movie from a filmmaker so good at them that it’s about time he shared his reading list with the audience, giving away his secrets.
Rating: R for language (profanity)
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, Woody Norman and Scoot McNairy
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mike Mills. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:48