This article is a finalist in the 2021 DC Student Arts Journalism Competition. Click here to learn more about the competition.
By Thais Carrion
Director Mike Mills (“20th Century Women”) gives viewers another profound examination of the fragile relationships between children and adults in this month’s new release, “C’mon C’mon.”
The film follows radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his Nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) as they are forced together, navigating the awkwardness of getting to know and trusting one another while Jesse’s mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman) is called to tend to Jesse’s father, who is in the midst of a manic episode. What was supposed to last one week quickly turns into many and Johnny finds himself bringing Jesse along on a cross-country trip as he interviews children of immigrants in urban cities about their expectations of the future. Equal parts heart-warming and heart-wrenching, we watch as Jesse and Johnny form an unlikely bond and wrestle with each other’s fraught emotions and vastly different perspectives on the situations that unfold before them.
Despite the fantastical nature of the time spent out of school and traveling with his uncle, Jesse’s erratic emotions are at the forefront of the story. His frustration with the lack of agency in problems so closely involving him is palpable and no doubt resonates with the confusion of childhood at the whims of adults.
The black and white medium combined with the radio-journaling subplot of “C’mon C’mon” gives way to an experience rich with sound and texture unlike any contemporary color-filled movie out today. Putting his recording equipment in the hands of Jesse, Johnny unknowingly creates a whole avenue of expression where through things often overlooked; the rolling sounds of skateboards at a skatepark, the rumbling of a train thundering forward on tracks or the overwhelming sounds of a city during rush hour all come to life through Jesse’s handling of the microphone. These sounds set against an emotive sound track of powerful orchestral compositions all come together to set the mood of the trip: an exciting, fragile and fleeting moment in the lives of both Johnny and Jesse.
While the relationship between an endlessly curious child and a contrastingly jaded adult comprises the core of this film, many other themes like past and future perspectives, the difficult role of mothers in patriarchal systems and the ways in which society is increasingly placing responsibility on the shoulders of younger generations to “fix” the mistakes of generations past all make an appearance throughout. Viv’s role as a mother is captivating and well-conveyed, as she is tasked with shouldering the burdens of all those around her with no respite or time for selfishness.
The integration of Johnny’s work project into the main storyline fell flat in a way that nearly turned the film as a whole into a socially insensitive version of a “white savior” storyline. The decision to have Johnny (a white cis-gender heterosexual adult male) give voice to diverse perspectives is a troubling one that distracts from the significance what he records. Furthermore, the fascinating ideas of these children of American immigrants included through Johnny’s interviews are organized around Jesse’s storyline. The overall effect is a disappointing tokenization of the important diverse perspectives included throughout the movie, subjecting them to a supporting role in what is a primarily white narrative.
One of the most enjoyable facets of the movie, along with the use of rich sound and visual texture used throughout, is the varying references to contemporary works of literature to set the emotional scene and signal a shift in theme. Quotes from a wide range of books provide short interludes and give the audience something to ponder through the events unfolding on screen. In the final moments of the film, one particularly intimate scene between Johnny and Jesse quotes “Star Child” by Claire A. Nivola, encompassing the fleeting sense of the beautiful yet painful chaos that is the experience of growing up:
“To visit planet earth, you will have to be born as a human child… There will be so much for you to learn, and so much for you to feel: Sadness, joy, disappointment, and wonder. Over the years you will try to make sense of that happy, sad, full, always shifting life you were in, and when the time comes to return to your star, it may be hard to say goodbye to that strangely beautiful world.”
Mills gives audiences a culmination of beautiful camera work and intricate audio detail, treating the transitory nature of childhood with the utmost care and respect. As the movie winds down and Jesse and Johnny’s time together comes to a close, both must come to terms with the intangible nature of the memories made. The audience is similarly forced to come to terms with the inevitability that Jesse will soon grow up and forget these memories despite his best efforts to remember them, while Johnny is left watching from a distance. Ultimately, “C’mon C’mon” is a work of art.
Thais Carron is a contributor on the Life section of American University’s The Eagle and is editing at John Cabot University’s paper, The Matthew, during her semester abroad in Rome. She has published 5 articles on The Eagle Online since September 2021 in both English and Spanish and has had the opportunity to interview filmmakers and museum curators both local to DC and internationally. Throughout her time studying International Relations and Art History in DC, Thais has developed a deep interest in Art History and Literature and greatly enjoys writing book reviews and museum pieces.