If filmmaker Miranda July hadn’t gotten there first, “The Future” would have made a fine title for fellow director (and husband) Mike Mills’ latest feature, “C’mon C’mon,” a small, soft-spoken yet casually profound family drama in which a subdued, post-“Joker” Joaquin Phoenix plays a middle-aged radio journalist who travels the country interviewing kids, asking what they think about their lives and where the world is headed.
It shouldn’t really surprise that the two creatives — accomplished artists in their own right — have overlapping interests, including but hardly limited to the conviction that adults could stand to learn a thing or two from the way young people see things. Where July’s movies lean toward absurdism and the surreal, the more serious-minded Mills keeps things firmly grounded in real life, such that even the stylistic decision to shoot in black and white feels like an extension of his no-frills commitment to authenticity.
“C’mon C’mon” comes on the heels of a pair of intensely personal yet easily relatable films Mills wrote and directed about his relationship to his mother (embodied by Annette Bening in “20th Century Women”) and father (Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”). This one also deals with parenthood, albeit from the other side of the equation: The protagonist here is Phoenix’s character Johnny, who agrees to help his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) by taking care of her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman, so natural, it never feels like acting). It’s a transformative experience for both of them, but not in that pat, inspirational way you might get in a Judd Apatow or James L. Brooks movie.
Johnny is single and childless, which affords him the luxury of pouring all his attention into his work. Viv wishes she had that same freedom, but parenthood puts significant demands on her, compounded by the fact her high-maintenance ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) is teetering on the brink of another breakdown. Without waiting to be asked, Johnny volunteers to watch Jesse, so that Viv might deal with the boy’s father during this rough stretch.
Mills provides humanizing glimpses of this mental health drama but doesn’t allow it to overtake the film, which focuses primarily on Johnny and Jesse’s time together — that and the repair work being done to the siblings’ relationship, which has been delicate since the death of their mother a few years prior. After a few days of “babysitting,” Johnny finds work calling again and suggests to Jesse — before running it by his mother — that the boy accompany him to New York. Viv isn’t crazy about the idea but gives in, and so begins a unique opportunity for Jesse to shadow his uncle on the job.
Johnny tries to turn the mic on Jesse, asking the standard questions about life and the future, but Jesse defers — though of course, he’ll acquiesce eventually, giving the film emotional closure in the process. But first, Johnny has to earn his confidence. Jesse’s a strong-willed kid whose mother has taught him to express himself, too candidly at times (“I heard that she got an abortion,” he tells Johnny, caught off guard by the revelation), and who expects open communication in return. “He’s a little person. Just be honest with him,” Viv advises by phone, admitting that she too can be frustrated by her own creation.
Humans have been raising children for millennia, and yet, no one seems to have perfected the formula, which makes it forever fascinating to watch how different strategies play out for others. Here, it feels as if Viv has perhaps been a bit too indulgent with the boy, who likes to play a strange game where he pretends to be an orphan, mistreated and in want of shelter. In another helmer’s hands, this curious behavior might read as “quirky,” but the way Mills presents it, Jesse’s “weird eccentricity” feels genuine — the sort of thing that sticks with you long after the rest of the film has faded from memory.
The movie is loaded with terrific specifics like this. Mills’ movies always are, and “C’mon C’mon” allows him to use the fictional dynamic between Johnny and Jesse to explore his own insecurities as a parent. It also leaves room for grace notes: the way Jesse wields a shotgun mic, Johnny washing the kid’s hair in the bathtub.
It’s kind of perfect that Johnny works in radio. For starters, the public doesn’t really know what the reporters who produce stories for NPR look like, what their lives entail. Scarily thin in “The Joker,” Phoenix has packed it back on for this role, looking like someone who subsists on take-out food and room service but never bothers to hit the hotel gym. His shoulders are slouchy and his body language slobby, but the character has a good heart. He’s a good listener, which is key, and that patience will serve him well with Jesse.
This unusual job also gives Mills a way to peer inside the character’s head, as Johnny records audio diary entries as much for our benefit as his own. The movie also includes actual interviews with young people in the various cities they visit — Detroit, New York, New Orleans — including one with Devante “D-Man” Bryant, a 9-year-old who was later struck by a bullet and killed, and to whom the film is dedicated.
“Be funny, comma, when you can, period,” Jesse says at one point, quoting his dad — who’s seen being silly in several short flashbacks. It’s a shame Mills didn’t lean into the same philosophy more: “C’mon C’mon” proves plenty poignant, but it’s less entertaining than it might have been. A24 allows that, encouraging indie auteurs to do their thing. It’s the boutique’s brand, and a respectable one. But humor has always been the not-so-secret recipe that sets studio movies apart from the naive-art works that surface at film festivals. No matter the genre, practically all Hollywood movies are comedies, and here’s one that makes you smile inside, but stops just short of letting that break into a laugh.