When his sister asks him to look after her son, a radio journalist embarks on a cross-country trip with his energetic nephew to show him life away from Los Angeles.

Chuck says:

Though it wears its heart – and its plot – on its sleeve, there’s a genuine sweetness to Mike Mills’ “C’mon, C’mon” that’s hard to resist. An unexpectedly grounded performance from Joaquin Phoenix, a career best turn from Gabby Hoffmann and fine work from 10 year-old Woody Norman anchor the movie, as each flesh out characters that are all too relatable, all going through moments of crisis as well as enlightenment that are relatable as well as impactful, the performers’ poignancy shining through.

Phoenix is Johnny, a documentary filmmaker who’s in the middle of an extensive project.  He and his colleagues are interviewing children in various cities, asking them what they think their futures will be like, whether they feel listened to by adults and other questions in this vein. It’s a fulfilling pursuit but is disrupted when Johnny’s sister Viv (Hoffmann) contacts him, asking if he can come to Los Angeles to mind his nephew Jesse (Norman).  Seems her husband (Scoot McNairy), who she’s separated from and now lives in San Francisco, is suffering a psychotic episode, his mania and paranoia running rampant. Viv needs to convince him seek help; enter Johnny, who comes to babysit Jesse for, what she assures him is “just a couple days.”

Well, if you’ve seen more than two or three movies in your lifetime, it comes as no surprise when Johnny and Jesse spend more than a couple days together or that the filmmaker’s project will boomerang on him, becoming a reflective exercise. His nephew is not your average 10-year-old.  It quickly becomes apparent that his mother has treated him more as an adult than a kid, and perhaps as a part-time therapist as well, as he ultimately reveals details about his parents and their relationship no child should be privy to.

And while he may be able to discuss and process his feelings maturely or speak with authority about fungi systems in trees, he’s still a child, one prone to flights of fancy, moments of rebellion and bouts of sadness. His seemingly contradictory personality catches Johnny off-guard repeatedly as they come to understand one another, but he wises up quickly, learning how to sooth his nephew and address as well as anticipate his needs.

Ultimately, the film is about the walls we build around ourselves, consciously or not, and the struggle to not only topple but recognize them. It comes as no surprise that Jesse is the one Johnny should be interviewing for his project or that the boy turns the tables on him.  He has some insightful questions for his uncle that result in some revelations concerning his new guardian and mother. And while this initially puts the siblings back on their heels, it ultimately leads to a further understanding of and reconciliation between brother and sister.

Mills’ secret weapon are the hundreds of interviews he and his crew conducted with a wide variety of children, a smattering of which are used over the course of the film. Not an actor among them, these real-life teens genuinely express what worries them about the world and what it may or may not hold for them. The honesty with which they express themselves is initially heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

The earnest nature of their responses mirror those that Johnny and Viv ultimately share with one another, all thanks to Jesse’s inquisitive and unguarded approach towards them and life. To be sure, “C’mon, C’mon” is guilty of being a bit too obvious at times, but the goodwill it fosters can’t be so easily denied.

3 1/2 Stars

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