I have been around students for the past decade, whether it’s been working as a summer camp counselor, a brief stint tutoring 6th grade math, and for the past five years, teaching college freshman. It’s a position of erosion, a waterway of life flowing around you, the riverbed boulder. If you genuinely care about these lives, you can feel at all times how little pieces of you are carried away, your advice and investment, but more often than not you never know what becomes of your students. You’re not a parent, not even really a friend, so there’s no reason to linger in these lives. Usually both parties will forget about each other shortly after the last grade is submitted. But there are some you always wonder about, what kind of person they will become and how life will shake out for them.
Director Mike Mills’s new movie, C’mon C’mon, is all about the awkwardness and elation of helping to shape young life, the difficulty coming not from characters who are envious of youth but from a place of compassion and care. Shot in soft black and white that evokes the warmth of a favorite postcard, the film follows Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist who has been traveling across America to interview young students about their hopes and dreams. After an unexpected call from his estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who’s in the middle of a family crisis, Johnny finds himself as a full time babysitter for his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). As Jesse goes on tour with Johnny, from L.A. to New York to New Orleans, Johnny gets a front row view of what it’s like to be a parent, warts and all.
Phoenix is as always a chameleon in his role, effortlessly stepping into the shoes of something of an “every man.” Johnny is funny and down-to-earth, making you long for him to inhabit more down-to-earth characters. This could have easily become a “single man decides he wants kids” story but instead the film never over-romanticizes being a parent. Johnny isn’t presented as having something wrong with him for not having kids or being single. He’s simply a human living out his own story. As I watched his journey as being uncle, from believing he’s crushing it on Day 1 to realizing he’s in way over his head on Day 2 to establishing a better bond of understanding with his temporary ward, it all felt like how I would probably react to dealing with Jesse. Johnny’s reactions to having the rug frequently pulled out from under him by his newfound ward, ranging from valid frustration to comedic stunned silence, grounds him in a deeply relatable way, especially for those of us without our own children.
The film also offers compassion and understanding to parental audience members. Even though she’s not the main focus, Viv isn’t relegated to the background, Hoffman portraying her with a mixture of blunt humor and weary naturalism. She’s so much more than the instigating force for Johnny’s journey, going through her own parallel story of tending to the needs of others as she tries to help her husband through a mental health crisis. It’s a struggle to wake up each day and try to care for people who might not understand your good intentions. Viv knows this and Johnny comes to learn it, but the lives of these characters and those in their orbits are never treated as a burden. The film never shies away from such difficulties, like how young children are prone to wandering off or asking existential questions, exposing our vulnerabilities in ways that we haven’t even considered.
C’mon C’mon takes listening to kids seriously. It opens and closes on Johnny’s work, of letting kids express their hopes and fears about the future. As he navigates the maze of parenting, he watches as Jesse’s heart breaks again and again against the weight of the world, of parental relationships and bedtime rules he won’t understand until later. Jesse’s frustration isn’t treated as something to be punished, instead characters talk to him as a person with feelings and an inner life. This is the strength of the movie, that the young are treated like actual people, albeit ones who still need to occasionally have their hands held, both metaphorically and at night when they can’t sleep. Even though we watch Johnny grow to better understand Jesse and by extension his interview subjects, it doesn’t use them as stepping stones, to be discarded as soon the main character achieves a revelation. Caring and empathy take time and energy, it’s why Viv and Johnny are constantly exhausted, but these things are never shown as being anything less than vital. Everything these characters do, even if it’s a misstep, started as an act of love. It’s easy to become closed off from each other, especially if you know forming the relationship will take effort or even if it’s only temporary. But Mike Mills believes in sincerity, not as a fix-all solution to the world’s problems, but as a way of nurturing our connection to the rest of humanity, no matter the age.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here