Before he was an Oscar winner known for playing deeply troubled individuals, Joaquin Phoenix was a child star. While the artist formerly known as Leaf Phoenix gave memorable performances in films like Parenthood, this chapter of his career is often overlooked. Maybe that’s because the late River Phoenix was the more prominent child actor with Stand by Me and Explorers. Maybe it’s simply hard to imagine Arthur Fleck or Freddie Quell as a little boy. In any case, C’mon C’mon brings Phoenix’s career full circle. Now he’s the parental figure acting opposite a child actor with a promising future.
On the heels of so many larger-than-life characters, Phoenix goes against type as an average joe. Phoenix’s Johnny makes a living as a radio journalist, interviewing young people about the future. Despite working with kids, Johnny never had any of his own. Getting her start in Field of Dreams and Uncle Buck, Gaby Hoffmann is another former star who successfully transitioned to adult star. She plays Johnny’s sister Viv, who can’t juggle her husband’s addiction and raising her son Jesse (Woody Norman). She asks Johnny to look after Jesse for a little bit, which quickly becomes an extended visit.
Norman couldn’t be more natural as Jesse. In most movies about bachelors forced to suddenly become parents, the kids risk becoming Olsen or Culkin clones. Although Jesse is a precocious child, he never comes off as disingenuous. He behaves precisely as a creative yet neglected young boy would. Phoenix is equally believable as a man who wasn’t prepared to look after a child, but still wants to do right by him. In a more conventional film, Johnny would make several irresponsible decisions before learning his lesson. While Johnny has his slipups, he ultimately walks a fine line between being a fun uncle and Jesse’s true father figure.
While not in the same league, C’mon C’mon warrants comparison to Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, another film about childhood shot in black-and-white. Where Belfast was about going back to the past, Belfast has a modern mindset while also looking to the future. As different as they are, Belfast and C’mon C’mon bookend each other surprisingly well. Both films are also deeply personal pieces for the directors. Belfast reflected Branagh’s upbringing. C’mon C’mon reflects where Mike Mills is now.
Mills’ films often draw from his personal experiences. Beginners explored Mills’ relationship with his father, who came out late in life. 20th Century Women was Mills’ salute to his mother and sister, who raised him. Unlike Johnny, Mills has been a father for almost a decade. However, Mills’ son Hopper inspired for C’mon C’mon. Mills says that the idea struck him while bathing Hopper, and his young said something “kind of profound.” Mills thus decided to make a movie about this, and that’s precisely what he’s done. C’mon C’mon is about the little moments between children and adults that seem simple on the surface. Underneath, though, the film has something powerful to say about life itself. One can only wonder which member of Mills’ family will get the cinematic treatment next.