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Joaquin Phoenix and a young kid transcend cliche in C’mon C’mon

Mike Mills’s latest film captures our past, our future, and our fleeting present.

A man with a boy riding piggyback walks through a crowd. The image is in black and white.
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C’mon C’mon.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

My TikTok timeline keeps serving me a certain kind of video, probably because it knows I was born in 1983. It goes something like this: The onscreen text says, “getting ready for your friend’s garage party in 2001”; behind the text, a woman my age puts on an American Eagle tank top, then another tank top on top of that, followed by low-rise jeans, Ugg boots, and basically just everything we wore back then. Some song by Nelly or Avril Lavigne plays in the background.

Each video triggers a sensory flood and a visceral question: Were we ever so young? Yeah, we sure were. (I was 17.) We lived in a micro-age of Xangas and LiveJournals and AOL Instant Messenger. Back then, 2021 seemed like far-off fantasy, straight out of some work of science fiction.

TikTok’s teens, on the other hand, weren’t even born back then, and so the 2001 video feels like goofy, ancient history. Twenty years from now they’ll be in my seat, and the next generation will be chuckling at their own videos. And so the cycle goes.

Every generation is living in the previous one’s science-fiction future, and as the pace of technological development speeds up, so does that cycle. That’s something C’mon C’mon — Mike Mills’s beautiful, decidedly non-sci-fi new drama — understands and celebrates and finds ever so slightly melancholy.

The first clue is its images. C’mon C’mon is shot (by the legendary Robbie Ryan) in black and white, a choice with two effects that hook into the story. It recalls a past era, when more films were presented in grayscale — though films like this may be evidence it’s coming back, it’s a generation of filmmaking that’s gone. There’s a feeling of matching plaintiveness in this movie, too.

A man stretches on his desk, looking at his laptop.
Joaquin Phoenix in C’mon C’mon.

But it’s also oddly futuristic. The film is full of vast cityscapes, the kind you see when flying into town, all rendered in black and white. Denver, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans — each gets its moment, and we linger, seeing the shapes of the buildings against the horizons, the cars moving neatly along the roadways. They’re testaments to boundless American optimism, the desire to build higher and stronger and bigger, the better to house everyone’s dreams. But in the hazy strangeness that accompanies a world seeped of color, they appear otherworldly, like something we’ve imagined but haven’t yet accomplished.

All of this fits the movie well. C’mon C’mon is about time passing, so slowly you can’t perceive it but so quickly that we often simply forget the details of our lives. This is familiar territory for Mills, particularly in his marvelous, colorful 2016 film 20th Century Women, which captures an entire century of American women by zooming in on one makeshift family. The new film, too, captures a brief moment in one family’s life but somehow, a little magically, stretches to past and future.

The vaguely futuristic city landscapes show up in C’mon C’mon because Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist, is interested in the dreams of a younger generation and traveling across the country to talk to them. After a bad breakup, the loss of his mother, and a strained relationship with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), he’s closed himself down to most everything except his work. And right now, his work is interviewing kids about the future.

Soon enough, he’ll acquire his own kid — a precocious nephew named Jesse, marvelously played by newcomer Woody Norman — and talk to him plenty, and that’s most of the movie. Johnny agrees to take care of Jesse because Viv needs to help her estranged partner, Jesse’s father Paul (Scoot McNairy), through a personal crisis. As Jesse and Johnny grow closer, their bond reveals to both of them something about themselves.

It’s a cliche of a tale — “wise kid teaches lessons to grown man” — but Mills sells it, largely thanks to Phoenix’s expertly calibrated performance as a capable, thoughtful, and vulnerable man who needs to be poked and prodded a little. I was moved, even a little verklempt.

I found myself preoccupied by the segments where Johnny interviews children and teens, as well as how he captures his own thoughts about the day: He talks into the same microphone he points at the kids. He asks them questions, such as “When you think about the future, what do you think it will be like?” and “What makes you angry?” and “In the future, do you think families will be the same?” They tell him their answers, very seriously and thoughtfully. Then he goes back to his hotel and talks to himself about them through his recorder, preserving not just their voices but his own.

A man reads his nephew a bedtime story. They look at one another.
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C’mon C’mon.

When you point a microphone or a camera at someone, you are implicitly telling them that they are important, at least in that moment. (One night, Johnny reads an excerpt from an essay by Cameraperson director Kirsten Johnson exploring just this point.) The kids he talks to are real kids — the DNA of a documentary floats around in this movie — and the answers they give are important. Documentarians frequently consult young people about the future or capture them in the act of celebrating the present, lending their perspectives the kind of weight most often afforded to talking heads on TV. What you hear in their conversations is not only their hopes for the future but also the future itself, when they may look back at themselves and wince or nod or wonder what happened to make them lose their idealism.

Recording someone is a way to stop time, capture a moment, and give it importance for a future generation. In the context of a relationship, that can be an act of affection. Johnny teaches Jesse how to use a microphone and a recorder, and tells him why he loves recording things — because you’re saving the minutiae of the present for the future. Later, both Jesse and Johnny record themselves for one another, and it’s a little bit of love — a way to say that the memories we made together matter, and we don’t want them to just slip away.

Because who knows what’s in Jesse’s future? He’s a kid in the age of the smartphone, where you can, if you have enough battery power, literally record everything you experience or see or hear in a day. If, when he’s Johnny’s age, he wants to be a radio journalist too, who knows what the contours of that work will be? Or what he’ll hear? Or what he’ll remember from watching his uncle work?

There’s a lot of wistful heart in C’mon C’mon, which ultimately aims to remind us that we’re only here on this earth a little while. We record ourselves as a bulwark against that recognition, while also knowing that it’s incumbent upon us to find a way to tell future generations what it was like to be us. TikTok videos of Ugg boots are one way to do it, and one that can prompt a cringe and a chuckle. But films like C’mon C’mon take the project a step further, an expression of the fact that no matter how shiny and sci-fi inflected the future seems, it will be here before we know it.

C’mon C’mon opens in theaters on November 19.