In the beginning of Mike Mills’s newest film, C’mon C’mon, two adult siblings, Johnny and Viv, speak on the phone for the first time since their mother died the year before. Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is restless, pacing in his mind when he isn’t pacing on his feet, but measured, almost hesitant about what he says. Viv, played by Gaby Hoffman, is fried from stress, seemingly both ahead of and behind on a lifetime of things that need to be done, not least of which includes looking out for her bipolar ex-husband Paul, played by Scoot McNairy, and their nine-year-old son Jesse, played by Woody Norman. Between Johnny and Viv lies a chasm that they’ve bridged with the kind of unspoken forgiveness that comes with time. Caring for their dying mother, who suffered from dementia, brought out long held frustrations and denials; Johnny tried to accommodate their mother’s delusions and slippages of time, while Viv pushed against giving in to such fantasies. At first, these revelations come in silent glimpses — Viv and Johnny yelling at each other, their mother laying in bed, doors slamming, gazes lingering behind turned backs — before the sound of memory rushes in. The past seems preserved but out of reach until a covering is removed and it comes distressingly, painfully alive.
Mills’s two previous films also focused on indie cinema’s longtime favorite subject, the complicated family: a dying father and an emotionally stunted son in 2010’s Beginners, and a mother, her son, and their motley chosen family in 2016’s 20th Century Women. C’mon C’mon shares themes with both of these films — the pitfalls of parenting as a non-parent, the whiplash of discovering the vulnerabilities of one’s elders, and the concessions loved ones make in order to agree upon a shared history. After his phone call with Viv, Phoenix’s Johnny leaves New York to watch his nephew in Los Angeles while Viv goes to care for Paul. Jesse is a maddening, adorable, precocious kid, in ways that charm then exasperate Johnny. Johnny’s work as a radio journalist, illustrated in an opening sequence that shows him interviewing kids around the country about their thoughts on what the future looks like, means he can’t stay in LA long, which prompts a series of rocky uncle-nephew misadventures in New York and New Orleans.
The film’s true grace comes from Phoenix, who embodies a shade of every uncle who’s ever been faced with the scary assignment of taking care of their sister’s kid for longer than five minutes. There’s never a moment of rest, even when he’s sleeping. Jesse bounces around the apartment, interrupting his uncle’s stilted insights (Jesse favors the classic “Blah, blah, blah”) and struggling to navigate the deep well of emotion within him. He’s getting used to the presence of Johnny, testing his limits, and eventually, trying to better understand him as someone he’s come to love and care about. All of this made me think of my own uncle Francis, and specifically a long stay with him in LA when I was still in middle school. Half-raised by my mother, the way many much younger siblings are, he always seemed to exist at an accessible midway point between being a kid and being an adult. After years of only seeing Francis at family gatherings at older relatives’ houses, there was a giddy gratitude at being able to spend time alone with him, in his own place, on his time off, with his friends who seemed unfathomably cool. In C’mon C’mon, music is a common language between uncle and nephew, especially when words fail. On Johnny’s first day alone with Jesse, he’s awoken by booming classical music on the stereo that Jesse listens to to soothe himself; after their first day in New York, Jesse thrashes around listening to some of Johnny’s own alt-rock. On one of the mornings I spent with Francis, I remember waking up to Phantogram’s “When I’m Small” playing in his little apartment, a song that still brings me back to the smallest details from that trip as if they’re being played on tape. Sitting in the front seat of Francis’s car, watching him smoke and talk to one of his friends, putting pennies into a large empty water bottle full of coins that he used as a doorstop.
Jesse is a keen observer of the adult realities playing out around him, always listening and always watching, with a maturity and frankness that stifles his elders’ ability to write him off as a kid who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he’s still a kid. He’s irrational and quick to judge and frightened that, because of the secrecy surrounding Viv’s trip to take care of Paul and Johnny’s constant flubs with temporary parenting, the adults around him don’t really know what they’re doing. And they don’t. For them, there is only the day at hand and the day after.
Throughout the film, Jesse runs away from Johnny, feuds with him, freaks out from eating too much sugar, and, most unsettling for Johnny, asks piercing personal questions about his father’s condition, Johnny’s loneliness, and the broken relationship he has with Viv. These vignettes bleed into one another, each scene fading out over images of the next. Meanwhile, memories of the more distant past play and recur, first in full, then in pieces. There is a sense that the story we are watching at present is itself a memory, though it’s uncertain whose.
A family, whether biological or found, is made up of a shared past. There is value in preserving it, even if it’s painful to recall. This tension is at the core theme of Mills’s filmography. In C’mon C’mon, the way forward from grief, broken promises, and fractured relationships is not to forget; it’s to remember.
Johnny’s work allows him to filter the world through headphones and a mic, but it also allows him to document it. Throughout the film, he keeps a kind of diary on his recording equipment, vocally recounting the events and feelings of each day; at one point, Jesse, who later reveals that he’s scared of forgetting his time with Johnny, does this too. After Jesse and Viv have returned to LA, Johnny sends them one final audio file, a gift: “When you forget about what happened, I’ll remind you.”
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.