Genuine artistic growth has been on wide display at this year’s New York Film Festival, which comes to a close on Sunday. As mentioned in my second dispatch from the fest, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World represents something of a zenith for his hyper-literary style. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has two features at NYFF, the three-hour drama Drive My Car and the anthology film Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, and both constitute an upward trajectory for a young director whose festival breakthrough was only five years ago. And then there’s Rude Jude’s provocative Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn, an urgent, exciting tonal departure for the Romanian filmmaker. For cinephiles, is there anything more exciting than seeing directors refine their voice over time, or sometimes even make a great leap forward?
Sometimes, however, the opposite occurs. Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women was exciting for a few reasons (including a great ensemble featuring Annette Bening’s career-best performance), but most of all, perhaps, for how it suggested that director Mike Mills was finally, productively locking into his obsessions: The film combined personal autobiography with cultural history, while also tamping down on the occasional, exasperating tweeness of his previous film, Beginners. To that end, C’mon C’mon feels like an unfortunate regression to preciousness. Yes, it engages with his career-long interest in memory and dysfunctional/unconventional families, but in the most nauseatingly earnest way imaginable.
The film’s mawkish structural gimmick gives Mills’ game away early. Radio producer Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) travels around the country interviewing children about their feelings on the future. These documentary segments, which Mills conducted with real kids, recur through C’mon C’mon, thematically centering the “voices of the future,” so to speak. The actual substance of their answers, however, is occasionally perceptive but mostly banal and frequently clichéd—the type of things you’d expect ordinary pre-teens to say, in other words. Yet Mills treats their remarks with an unfounded sense of awe and gravity, as if it’s incredible that young people could form complete sentences. (He does include an interview with Devante “D-Man” Bryant, a 9-year-old boy who was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting in July of last year and to whom the film is dedicated. It’s admittedly a tender tribute.)
This device leads cleanly into C’mon C’mon’s premise: Johnny agrees to look after 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) when his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), leaves Los Angeles to look after her bipolar ex-husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who’s on the verge of another breakdown. Jesse is a handful, to say the least: He’s verbose and eccentric, often playacting as an orphan for attention or badgering Johnny with questions and trivia. On top of that, he’s also impulsive, sometimes abandoning Johnny in public to test his resolve. Eventually, of course, Johnny and Jesse bond when the boy travels with the man on his radio assignments, first to New York and then on an extended trip to New Orleans. Johnny breaks through Jesse’s oddball exterior with his disarming sincerity, and the two form an emotional attachment based on direct and honest communication.
If that doesn’t sound like uninspired treacle, then maybe C’mon C’mon will charm you. Everyone else will likely cringe at Jesse’s obnoxiously precocious antics and Phoenix’s trembling delivery, the way he constantly speaks as though the world were just too beautiful and painful to handle. Though Mills does his damndest to avoid cute kid/unprepared father clichés, he ultimately falls into all of them. Norman and Hoffmann do solid work, especially together, but there’s just too much touchy-feely, hyper-saccharine material for them to transcend or elevate. Even when Johnny and Viv openly express their frustrations with Jesse to each other, it feels like every edge has been cleanly rounded off the dialogue. Compare their respective relationships with Jesse to the central mother-son bond in 20th Century Women, or the parental dynamic in Beginners, and it almost feels like this new film was made by an entirely different director.
Performances aside, every other choice in C’mon C’mon is irritating, including the frequent quotations of theoretical texts (read in voiceover and cited on screen), the ponderous score by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and the affected use of black-and-white digital photography. There’s nothing to hold on to here unless you’re invested in the This American Life-style foundation of Mills’ film or in the prosaic uncle-nephew relationship. Mills’ previous work was complicated and nuanced, openly embracing life’s ugly realities. C’mon C’mon presents them in the safest way imaginable.
Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog similarly features a uncle-nephew relationship (well, step-uncle, in this case), but it’s far more contentious, and rife with queer subtext besides. Benedict Cumberbatch plays hard-bitten, hard-drinking Montana rancher Phil Burbank, who works with his taciturn brother, George (Jesse Plemons), and pines for the good ol’ days, when a man named Bronco Henry showed them the ways of the world. When Phil, George, and their crew spend the night at a roadhouse run by widowed proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst), George is immediately smitten, and they’re quickly married. Phil, however, doesn’t take kindly to Rose’s presence in his life, nor initially to her shy, feminine-coded teenaged son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who bears the brunt of the man’s thinly veiled homophobia.
The Power Of The Dog is based on a Thomas Savage novel, and for better and worse, its style is heavily literary. Campion, Oscar-nominated director of The Piano, efficiently sketches compelling intimate and realistically unstable relationships for her four main characters. Phil loses George to Rose, but George quickly loses Rose to alcohol, which she starts to rely heavily upon after they’re married. By the time Phil sparks up an unlikely mentorship with Peter when he’s home from boarding school, The Power Of The Dog assumes a delightfully unpredictable quality, its narrative driven less by schematic plot demands than the murky character motivations. Campion patiently studies her characters and their connection to the environment, letting scenes play out at extended lengths. At the same time, she often leans on blunt visual metaphors (particularly ones involving castration and blood-stained nature) which probably land better on the page than the screen.
Campion’s occasional heavy hand often seems at odds with her cast, who instill their characters with nuanced emotions and genuine menace. Cumberbatch especially stands out, trading his typically reserved, oft-stilted manner for convincing man-of-the-plains swagger—a masculinity that Phil himself seems to be performing, for himself as much as for others. His vibrancy both grounds and shakes up the rest of the ensemble—particularly Dunst, whose character fears Phil and starts to feel even more unmoored after he softens towards Peter. Aided by Johnny Greenwood’s typically stellar score and Ari Wegner’s forebodingly sunny photography, The Power Of The Dog finds its way to a volatile, unsettling conclusion. It might not achieve the snap that Campion intended, but it still leaves an appropriately queasy aftertaste.
Unlike Power Of The Dog, Memoria, the magnificent new feature from Thai luminary Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), doesn’t have a literary bone in its body. It’s cinema incarnate, with sound and light assuming both a linguistic and physical form: They communicate with the audience like a language, but also almost tangibly reach out to them as well, forming a symbiotic relationship entirely on Joe’s terms. Nor does the film have a plot so much as a central question. Jessica (Tilda Swinton), an English woman living in Medellín, awakens one night to what sounds vaguely like an explosion, or possibly a large ball dropped into a metal container, or maybe something else entirely. What is this sound? Where does it come from? Why can only Jessica hear it? These questions push Memoria forward without taking up too much space, with Joe using her predicament to direct his audience’s attention. Suddenly, every noise, from piercing car alarms to the howler monkeys’ shriek, becomes a question unto itself.
Joe, per his own words, was partially inspired to make Memoria because of his experiences with Exploding Head Syndrome, a rare parasomnia where people hear a sudden loud noise during their sleep cycle. People who suffer from Exploding Head Syndrome often experience symptoms as they’re falling asleep or waking up, which is fitting considering Joe’s films reside in that half-asleep space, where the conscious and subconscious vaguely overlap. The first half of Memoria follows Jessica’s experiences in Bogota visiting her sister (Agnes Brekke), who drifts in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed, and consulting young sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) for help trying to recreate the noise in her head via stock sounds in his studio. These adventures all take on a familiarly oneiric quality, with Joe employing tranquil yet haunting long takes to capture Jessica’s quasi-insomniac state. Many sequences evoke buried or even forgotten memories from either Jessica’s life or the history of Colombia, though Joe rarely explicates their origins.
Memoria’s second half changes setting and tone. Jessica abandons the city for the Amazon jungle, where she finds an older peasant, also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), who has “perfect memory” and may or may not be the same person as the sound engineer. Jessica’s lengthy interaction with him is best not spoiled, but it features a scene with a collage of non-diegetic sound that feels like a cross between an audio play and a hallucination and culminates in a “reveal” that made my eyes widen to the size of saucers.
At a time when cinema feels more culturally ill-defined than ever, Memoria is a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what it means to experience art specifically calibrated for a communal theatrical space, which is sadly becoming the exclusive province of blockbusters. Much noise has been made online about Memoria’s release strategy, a roadshow theatrical tour “moving from city to city, theater to theater, week by week, playing in front of only one solitary audience at any given time.” I’m sure more critiques and defenses will be mounted in the coming months, but speaking as someone who saw Memoria in a theater, I’ve never been more convinced that it belongs there. Though Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers is technically NYFF’s Closing Night film, the festival located a fitting conclusion in Memoria, a celebration of singularly cinematic possibilities from one of its finest working practitioners.