Writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) helms this drama about radio journalist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), who takes a cross-country trip with his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). (B&W, 109 min.)
- Photo Courtesy Of A24
- GETTING TO KNOW YOU Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) takes his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), on a cross-country journey where they work through their respective problems, in C'mon C'mon.
Glen This soulful little slice-of-life drama is so naturalistic, authentic, and real that it feels more like peering into people's private lives than watching a film. The story itself is exceedingly simple. Johnny agrees to watch his nephew, Jesse, when his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), has to help her mentally ill husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), as he works through a breakdown. The siblings haven't talked much since their mother (Deborah Strang) died the previous year. Since then, Johnny's relationship with his girlfriend ended while Viv has struggled with her sick husband and her precocious and somewhat odd son, Jesse. It's all pretty common family drama, but at the heart of the story is the transformational relationship that grows between Johnny and Jesse—both wounded souls in their own ways, both in desperate need of connection, and both trying to navigate their emotional baggage. It's all set alongside Johnny's current work project, which is interviewing young people about how they feel about the future. Though it started off a little slow and flat for me, the story and characters sucked me in, and by the conclusion, I was fully emotionally invested. This is an amazing piece of cinema.
Anna It's definitely not an action film, but the earnest relationships here keep it compelling. Every character is complicated with a vein of sadness running deep, and everyone also loves each other deeply—even within the imperfections they all hold. Phoenix is one of my favorites; he chooses his roles with clear intention, and I'm always impressed by the depths he will take himself to in a role. His main counterparts in this, Jesse and Viv, match his talent, and young Norman is a total gem. The casting director must have been so excited when this wide-eyed and tenderhearted kid walked in the door. Johnny can't stay in LA and can't stand the thought of leaving Jesse behind, so he packs himself and the kid up and heads to New York, a new experience for Jesse whose delicate emotional balance puts Johnny in a tough spot. Jesse already feels abandoned and has a mentally ill father whose manias have no doubt taken their toll. He's thoughtful and sweet and sometimes difficult in the way that only children can be. The interviews with kids are especially poignant in this film; they all display deep thought and emotion with heartfelt and honest answers to life's big questions. This film hits all the marks for me, and it's one I will surely watch again.
Glen Phoenix, Hoffman, and McNairy are all terrific, dependable actors, and the performances are uniformly incredible. How director Mills coaxed young Norman—who's only 11 but already has 15 acting credits to his name—to deliver such a nuanced and multilayered performance is nothing short of miraculous. I wish I'd seen this film before I became a step-parent. It's a lesson in learning how to listen—I mean really listen—and understand what a child is saying (and not saying). This is such a thoughtful, deeply considered film. The characters feel sadness, joy, frustration, longing ... they're so real. It's a quiet, small film on the surface, but it's full of weighty ideas, and it's filled with awards-worthy performances, direction and writing, and gorgeous black and white cinematography by Robbie Ryan. This is the antithesis of the Hollywood big-budget blockbuster, and—oh my—what a delicious change of pace.
Anna This is the type of film I beg and plead for when there's nothing but big box-office hits in theaters. Give me the quiet nuance and subtle beauty of actual character building over explosions and one-liners any day! I love to see actual craft happening on the big screen. The black and white filming was such a beautiful choice too; it's one of those things that just cuts down on the noise around the studied performances, and despite saturation, you still see, feel, and hear the sounds of these places. Whether it's the skate park in LA, or the beach, or the streets of New York, or a parade in New Orleans, director Mills conveys the vibrancy of the locations so well. You're right that a lot of what this film is about is the learning curve that comes with children, especially if you're not an everyday fixture in their lives and used to the day-in and day-out of the exhausting work of forming a human life with compassion and integrity. It never feels like you're doing it totally right, but giving a child truth and humanity and perhaps a warm body to cuddle up with at night is ultimately what forms them. I can't say it too much—this film was a total win for me. I can't recommend it enough. Δ
Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.