Lots of blah blah blah.
The cross-generational dramedies about the relationships between children and adults continues for Mike Mills with his latest C’mon C’mon about a professionally busy and personally listless documentarian who fatefully reconnects with his estranged sister at a moment when she desperately needs him. Why are they estranged? We get glimpses of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) screaming at each other, the ways in which they cope with their mother’s death driving a wedge between. But there’s also allusions to the misguided advice he gave her when she was having troubles with her bi-polar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy). And there’s yet unspoken secrets about Johnny’s long-term girlfriend suddenly disappearing. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t get rectified overnight. Unless something important can provide a good enough reason.
Say hello to Jesse (Woody Norman), Viv’s hyperactive and precocious nine-year-old son who might just be too smart for his own good. The reason is simple: Dad isn’t doing well. Jesse remembers the struggles they endured last time this happened. He remembers the hurt. And how can he not worry that this is his reality both in the present and the future when he’s older and perhaps afflicted with the same mental imbalance? It’s no wonder that he doesn’t want to answer his uncle’s questions. Johnny and his film partner Roxanne (Molly Webster) are traveling from city to city in the United States to ask children (mainly immigrant children) what they believe the future holds. They provide heartfelt and intelligent responses. Jesse simply hopes that he’ll be okay.
That’s a pithy reaction too considering what he’s experiencing. Viv is stuck in Oakland coaxing Paul into admitting himself to a facility and she’s yet to tell Jesse what’s happening despite him being keenly aware. Maybe it’s why he plays a morbidly curious game wherein he pretends he’s an orphan wandering into their house to ask his mother what her dead children were like. He wants to know about himself from a distance. He wants to understand what’s happening in a way that he can process without the obvious trepidation his parents have about telling him more than they think he needs to know. And now they’re both away. He’s left with Johnny, heading to New York out of necessity with neither knowing what they’re doing.
The result is equally melancholic and exhilarating thanks to the authentic performances given by Phoenix and Norman. They’re very alike—goofy, strange, and emotional. They get lost in their own worlds and act out when caught off-guard. Johnny is trying to juggle an already busy life with this handful of a kid that he loves and wants to include within it. Jesse is trying to cope through distraction, but the truth comes flooding back every time his uncle is forced to put him second. The boy tries playing it cool to deflect when things go wrong. His guardian calls Viv for advice and to apologize in case he’s screwing everything up. She tells them both what they need to hear. She explains that honesty is their best friend.
And that’s what will get them through. Both of them. Because while this is superficially about helping a child deal with the crippling stress of the world crumbling around him, it’s also about a man allowing himself to push his pride aside and admit that he’s not okay. They’re both so closed-off by what they deluded themselves into thinking is necessity that they’re ready to explode if only they’ll allow themselves that freedom. Look no further than Viv to see the strength needed to do so. She’s obviously frayed and yet she’s there for the man she loves no matter what. She picks up the phone whenever Johnny calls even if it’s just to assure him that she wants to kill Jesse all the time too.
Communication is key. Johnny is quick to shove microphones into strangers’ faces and ask intrusive questions with philosophical underpinnings. He’ll give himself a debrief of the day’s events each night. But will he ask himself any hard questions? Will he escape the “blah blah blah,” as Jesse calls humanity’s penchant to obfuscate, and deal with what’s going on inside of him? Mills is smart enough to know he can’t answer that question. He knows that his filmmaking style and brilliance isn’t about telling as much as it is showing. Cinema is a visual medium after all. He pushes his characters to uncomfortable places so that they can see past the mirror into a reality they hid from for too long. His films are about opening doors.
And C’mon C’mon is smart enough to do exactly that without overstepping its reach or forgetting that the characters are king. Mills lets Johnny and Jesse fall so they can get back up again with the other’s help. He lets Viv take a break and deal with one fire at a time for once even if it means burning the other two brighter than they may have prepared to burn once a weekend turns to a week and then a three-city tour of America. Don’t therefore be mistaken into thinking this is Phoenix and Norman’s show alone. They are so great, but they are nothing without Hoffmann. Whether the silent flashbacks of rage and play or exasperated sighs of the present, she might be the reason for everything.
She’s the mother, child, sister, wife, teacher, and friend. She’s the caretaker, breadwinner, cheerleader, and rock for everyone in her life. Johnny and Roxanne ask a young boy if he believes adults understand today’s children and he says that he believes mothers do. They must. Especially in America’s still largely patriarchal society placing undo stress and expectations upon them while men like Johnny can skate by and abandon family and responsibilities until he’s ready. Viv doesn’t get that reprieve. She can’t just let Paul and Jesse work things out on their own and saunter back later. So, to answer Johnny’s query about whether the future will be okay, the answer is, “Probably not.” But she’ll figure something out. And maybe Johnny is finally awake enough to help her.
 Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman (L-R) Courtesy of A24
 Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann (L-R) Photo by: Tobin Yelland
 Woody Norman, Joaquin Phoenix (L-R) Photo by: Julieta Cervantes