Children shouldn't have to worry about the future, but in this current landscape, they inevitably will. The job of a parent is not to prevent their children from thinking about the future, but rather to create a safe space for them to explore and learn what it means to build the best future for themselves. A parent has many jobs, some as simple as teaching the benefits of having three proper meals a day, and others can be as labyrinthian as navigating life skills. Whatever the job a parent takes on, the hope is that it stems from a place of love and understanding.
An even greater challenge is trying to parent a child when you have never been a parent yourself. Such is the challenge Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix, 'Joker', 'The Master') is faced in Mike Mills' ('Beginners', '20th Century Women') latest film, 'C'mon C'mon'. Johnny is a radio journalist by trade, but after a chat with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, TV's 'Transparent'), he agrees to look after her son Jesse (Woody Norman) for a few days while she leaves to care for her sick ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy, 'Argo'). Paul is in a worse state than first feared, and as those few days quickly turn into weeks, Jesse accompanies Johnny back to New York, as they navigate together the balance of being a working parent.
However, 'C'mon C'mon' is so much more than that. On face value, one might be excused for assuming this road trip film will follow the structure of adult and child teaching others the values of life, and both becoming better people for it. Well, that's true to some extent, but it's also an exploration of resilience, reflection, memories, love and perseverance.
Shot gloriously in black and white and woven with snapshots of Johnny interviewing children about the future, 'C'mon C'mon' constantly shifts between unparalleled intimacy and expansive pondering of the future of mankind. Mills delicately plays in the space that lies between a natural and playful realism, and the broader strokes of life of what it means to be an adult. The scenes shift seamlessly from brushing teeth to parades in New Orleans, and it all aids Mills in crafting this fable-like quality throughout the film. The clean cuts to flashbacks and the complementing colour spectrum, give audiences the sense of looking through a photo album, like they are all memories we are encouraged to sit with.
The interviews with the children are not to be ignored either. They give a documentary feel to the film, which only adds to the intimate realism Mills is striving for. More than that, what these children have to say can really resonate with the audience. Perhaps none more so than Devante Bryant, who the film is dedicated to in the closing credits. Devante brings a beautiful and sentimental zest of life to his answers, but he was tragically shot and died shortly after filming. It reminds us how precious life can be.
The clean cuts to flashbacks and the complementing colour spectrum, give audiences that sense of looking through a photo album, like they are all memories we are encouraged to sit with.
While Joaquin is great as the uncle out of his depth, and Gaby is so grounded as the mum who tries to do it all, it's Woody who truly steals the show. If there is a better child performance this year, I'll eat my hat. Woody brings an intelligence and sensitivity to Jesse that allows him to be simultaneously charming and a handful. He's adorable and whip-smart when he needs to be, but equally has such a caring and thoughtful approach to his new challenges. He brings a real warmth and love to his bond with Johnny, and commands the screen in ways that belies his age.
'C'mon C'mom' was shot chronologically, and you can really feel that in the way Johnny and Jesse's relationship grows over the course of the film. What really impressed me, however, was the cyclical learning between Viv, Jesse and Johnny. It is never just Viv teaching Johnny how to parent, Johnny teaching Jesse how to grow, or Jesse teaching Johnny how to live. Each of them is always teaching the others, because they all know they are flawed, and all are open to improving as human beings. Of course, Viv doesn't know everything about being a parent, because nobody does! Similarly, Viv and Johnny have a somewhat friction-filled sibling relationship, so it wouldn't make narrative sense for Johnny to just take what she says on board and be an amazing guardian. It's all about learning from each other, and finding strength in the places of yourself you never knew existed.
Mills challenges the audience to think about their own pursuit of truth and love. We need to think about what kind of future we want for our children, and how can we best give them the tools to thrive in that space. These are questions not easily answered, but are nonetheless so beautifully portrayed in this film.
In one of his teachings, Johnny notes to Jesse that he loves to record everything because it captures a moment, and that allows it to last forever. Similarly to all the recordings that capture and immortalise the answers of the children Johnny interviews, so too will I be thinking about this film for a very long time.