Uncles in movies are generally either doomed (Uncle Ben, Uncle Owen) or comic (Uncle Fester, Uncle Buck). Rarely does the relationship between a man and one of his siblings’ kids get explored in significant emotional detail, even though such bonds can be quite strong; You Can Count On Me did give real bite to scenes between Mark “not yet famous” Ruffalo and Rory “the least famous” Culkin, but brother-sister tension is that movie’s unmistakable focus.
Happily, writer-director Mike Mills, who’s come to specialize in unorthodox family relationships (Beginners, 20th Century Women), chose to tackle this long-neglected subject in his latest film, the urgently titled C’mon C’mon. He might have crafted a less eccentric nephew, but gets bonus points for originality. He also deserves credit for shepherding Joaquin Phoenix’s least showy, most relaxed performance in many years.
Johnny, C’mon’s adult protagonist, isn’t utterly consumed with guilt or anxiety or anger, the way so many other Phoenix characters are, though he’s still processing the recent death of his mother and doesn’t seem thrilled to hear from his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), with whom he butted heads about Mom’s final days in the hospital. Still, blood is blood, and Johnny hustles to Los Angeles when Viv explains that she needs him to look after her 9-year-old son, Jesse, for a couple of days while she deals with a psychiatric emergency involving Jesse’s father (Scoot McNairy), who’s grappling with some severe mental health issues in San Francisco. Trouble is, Johnny’s a radio journalist in the midst of a project that sees him traveling around the country asking kids about their hopes and fears regarding their future. When Viv’s “errand” takes longer than anticipated, and Jesse expresses enthusiasm about a trip to New York City, an impromptu work vacation is born.
Mills favors a blend of fanciful and mundane, but he’s been scaling back the overt goofiness of late (even as his wife, fellow filmmaker Miranda July, ramps it up). There’s no equivalent here of Beginners’ subtitled dog or kaleidoscopic collages. He did opt to shoot C’mon C’mon entirely in black-and-white, an approach that varies in effect by location: Stripping L.A. of color gives the city a harsh, documentary feel, whereas it’s virtually impossible to avoid romanticizing Manhattan in monochrome (as Manhattan itself famously demonstrated).
On the whole, the film’s stark look mirrors Phoenix’s uncommon (for him) simplicity. Johnny’s job—or at least this particular project—requires him to listen attentively as children grapple with the enormity of a world they still barely know or understand. Taking care of Jesse, even temporarily, amounts to a concentrated dose of doing that job 24-7, with all of the frustrations involved in knowing that it has to take precedence over everything else.
Ironically, the character who best embodies that dynamic is the one who’s been deliberately pushed out of the way to make room for Johnny. Mills has a special way with onscreen mothers—his own was the inspiration both for Annette Bening’s unconventional matriarch in 20th Century Women and for Mary Page Keller’s volatile turn in Beginners’ various flashbacks. Here, the whole idea is to remove Viv from the equation for a while, yet Mills can’t help but keep her constantly in the loop via phone, allowing her to micro-manage the babysitting arrangement from afar. And Hoffmann (who actually began her movie career as one of Uncle Buck’s nieces!) delivers an outstanding portrait of harried yet capable motherhood in just a handful of quick scenes. Viv’s already been through the learning curve that we see Johnny tentatively embark upon, and Hoffmann conveys both how much she’s learned and the extent to which this uniquely rewarding and maddening challenge just never stops.
Jesse happens to be especially challenging, in a way that will inspire some viewers to mutter the film’s title sarcastically while rolling their eyes. All of the eccentricity that Phoenix and Hoffmann eschew has been diverted into this precocious moppet—the most insufferable such example since Jerry Maguire was informed that the human head weighs 8 pounds. That kid, though, was mostly comic relief, in a film that was itself fundamentally a comedy. Jesse’s antics have a darker undercurrent, which only makes their improbability more jarring. Even if it’s derived from real-life behavior (which may well be the case), his nightly ritual of pretending to be an orphan, demanding that his mom (or Johnny, in his mom’s absence) play the role of a kindly foster parent answering questions about his “real,” dead relatives, is just too bizarre to take seriously, thematic resonance be damned. Much of Jesse’s dialogue feels similarly ludicrous, and the movie didn’t need two separate instances of him trying to get Johnny’s attention by disappearing in a public space, causing Johnny to panic (twice), thinking that his nephew has been abducted.
Even in those frantic scenes, Phoenix keeps the guy relatively grounded. And there are genuinely touching moments scattered throughout this empathetic drama, even if some of them—like Jesse eventually speaking into Johnny’s tape recorder, providing his own answer to the question being asked of all the other kids—are a little too neatly scripted. Mills’ core insight remains the same in every film: We’re all screwed up to some degree, all constantly improvising, all doing the best we can with relatively few guidelines. That’s not especially innovative or profound, perhaps, but seeing it refracted through a connection that movies tend to ignore lends it a certain sparkle.