Spoilers! While I’m not sure this movie can really be “spoiled” from a plot perspective, I caution that my discussion is focused on how the film’s culminating themes and messages impacted me.
My little guy is three. He’s not just three years old though. He’s the sort of three that can only be counted aloud for each inquisitive adult with accompanying fingers from the thumb to the index to the middle. It’s as though he can’t dare use the ring finger lest he fill up the whole hand too soon because four is so blessedly close.
Logan is the sort of kid that can’t control himself but to clap and “wahoo!” spontaneously when Venom defeats Carnage or the Will Arnett Kaiju defeats the Terry Crews one in Rumble. He loves Finn Balor, Blue’s Clues, and those fake pancake treats they sell at Costco. He asked Santa Claus for books of mazes. He’s an impish little shit from time-to-time but always with the knowing smirk of someone who is happily testing the limit. As annoying as his little sister can be sometimes, he’s the sort of kid who plays best with her – most supportively and most lovingly – when he doesn’t realize anyone else is there to see.
But he won’t remember.
Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon understands a profoundly sad fact of parenthood in a way that no other film I can recall ever has. No matter how many times I remind him, my son is a little boy and his memories will fade. No matter how much some adorable moment resonates for me the man he grows up to be simply will not be able to recall these silly – and sometimes moving – little moments. All these moments that will inform who he grows up to become will be lost to the vagaries of time.
The film is about a great many things: parenting, mental health, family dynamics, elder care, journalism. For me, the film resonates on the frequency of fatherhood. These little pains in the asses take so very much of our energy and time… and in turn we parents are rewarded with these small, beautiful moments of seeing the empty little blobs we birth grow into actual people. During the height of the pandemic, my wife and I brought home Logan’s little sister, Astra. He understood, vaguely, that mommy’s tummy was growing because a new baby was on the way but not all the ways she would impact his life. When he first handed her to him (well supervised because he was still just two!), he leaned down and nuzzled his face against her forehead. From the very first moment he met her, his instinct was affection.
But he won’t remember.
The most moving thing I might ever see my son do, and he won’t remember.
I realize I’ve now rambled for a long while with barely a mention of the film we’re here to discuss. I can’t help but think Mike Mills would consider that a success – his work has driven me to deep introspection. His films, like 20th Century Women and Beginners, are sly examinations of mothers, of fathers, and of how age impacts those relationships. His writing is always light and graceful with so many gaps left wide for the viewer to fill in their own experiences. He’s somehow both astoundingly precise and entirely inviting at the same time.
I do believe C’mon C’mon is his finest film. From the gorgeous black and white compositions that grant the movie a feeling akin to memories grappled back from the brink of the forgotten to a score that immaculately compliments each beat of the film’s mood, Mills is working at an elite level. It helps to have such a splendid triumvirate of lead performers helping to carry the film. I’m not sure Joaquin Phoenix (Two Lovers, Her) has ever been better. Freed from the shackles of IP method acting madness, Phoenix gives a grounded, moving performance. It feels so little like the public persona of Phoenix we know. Here he is the warmest flawed family member we’ve ever known – a man who wants to do well, but struggles to balance his career and his own emotional baggage. Everything is played at a mellow human key, no melodrama, no histrionics. It’s Phoenix restraint that makes the film’s entirely subtle emotional climax land so devastatingly.
Gaby Hoffman is simply brilliant as a mother deeply dedicated to her son but unable to free herself of her emotional commitment to the unwell husband that she still loves (Scott McNairy, Monsters, FX’s Halt and Catch Fire). There are long scenes in the film that see Hoffman and Phoenix discuss her son’s day-to-day routine by phone. The writing is direct and natural, but Hoffman’s subtle, smart annunciations and expressions layer so much more meaning into the dialogue. Young Woody Norman (The Current War, Poldark) is a revelation. With many young actors you can feel the gears turning of a performance flogged from a director skillfully pushing a child into just the right emotions. Not so here. Norman’s performance is every bit a part of the film’s very marrow. It feels not just as though Phoenix acts off the reactions of the young performer sharing the screen with him; rather it feels as though the two are bringing these characters and this relationship to life together. This is the sort of child actor performance that deserves awards accolades.
I first saw the film at the New York Film Festival a few months ago. It’s a film I’ve thought about on a near daily basis. It was a joy to revisit Mills’ work last night. These days my son has realized a certain truth about our home: my wife goes to bed earlier than I and, if he gets up after she goes to bed, I’ll let him sit with me on the couch and watch whatever movie or show I have on. Sure enough tonight, there was Logan snuggled up next to me on the couch. I didn’t think this one – a contemplative black and white family drama – would remotely hold his attention. And yet, he made it through most of the movie snuggled up against me on the couch occasionally asking savvy questions.
He won’t remember watching C’mon C’mon with me, but I’ll remember and I’ll remind him. And I hope someday it will be the sort of film that helps him to understand what it means to be a father, as it did for me. C’mon C’mon is one of 2021’s finest and most essential films.
C’mon C’mon was released theatrically on November 19, 2021. It is now available for rental on Premium Video on Demand.