If you’re a Stephen Sondheim fan, it’s likely his melodies and lyrics have been whirling through your mind on an endless, bittersweet loop for the past week. Since Sondheim’s death on Nov. 26, I feel as though I see him and his influence in every bit of media I consume — in comedy, in romance, in tragedy, and everything in between. And in writer/director Mike Mills’ new family drama “C’mon C’mon,” I felt the shadows of Sondheim’s empathy and keen understanding of the human condition.
“C’mon C’mon” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio journalist who — while finishing up a massive, cross-country project — is tasked with taking care of his nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). “C’mon C’mon” doesn’t have too much to do with marriage — at least not on its face — and yet, I couldn’t get a line from Company, Sondheim’s masterful musical about the perils, mundanity, and beauty of marriage, out of my head.
At the very end of Company, Bobby — 35, single, commitment-phobic to a fault — has come to the end of his rope. Sick of the matchmaking machinations of his married friends, he begins to list off what he views as the failings of marriage. As each rebuke grows more scathing than the last, one friend cuts in with a simple, but heartfelt line:
“Hey buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be.”
“C’mon C’mon” asks us to consider that same philosophy and lend grace to our own lives. Throughout the film, Johnny’s radio project has him interviewing kids around the country about fears and hopes for the future, not just for themselves, but for their family, their community, and their country. The same fears arise over and over, whether its loneliness, climate change, or financial struggles. But, over and over, through enchanting cinematography and nuanced, compassionate performances, “C’mon C’mon” reminds us that while there are certainly things to fear, there are things to treasure as well.
“C’mon C’mon” doesn’t get bogged down in plot, and puts the relationships of the characters at the forefront of the story. There’s Johnny’s sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), whom Johnny hasn’t spoken to since their mother died of dementia a year earlier. There’s Viv’s estranged husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who suffers from mental illness and who Viv must leave to take care of, leaving Jesse alone with Johnny. And then there’s Jesse himself – a precocious nine-year-old stuck in the middle of a complex situation he’s not quite old enough to bear the weight of and frustrated with the adults who refuse to tell him the truth.
With “C’mon C’mon,” much like he did with 2016’s “20th Century Women,” Mills proves that he has a rather profound, empathetic understanding of not only what binds people together, but also what breaks them apart. This understanding is only reinforced by the expert filmmaking at play, particularly from cinematographer Robbie Ryan. From Johnny and Jesse, to Johnny and Viv, to Viv and Jesse, characters in the film seem to always lean towards each other, sometimes even sinking into each other in a way that’s deeply intimate. Those tender moments are exacerbated by equally heartbreaking moments of hurt. In a flashback, the audience is privy to a moment of division between Viv and Johnny as they argue over how best to handle their mother’s illness. The camera shows Viv as she is, but shows Johnny through a mirror’s reflection on the other side of the screen — a wonderful representation of siblings warped backward, unable to see eye to eye.
“C’mon C’mon” is one of the many recent films shot in black and white, but Ryan is singular in his ability to use that technique to great effect. The film’s black and white palette is not superficial. It’s not meant to transport us to another time or simply function as an aesthetic gimmick. Instead, it makes the film feel rather timeless, softening the edges of life’s blade in a way that makes the film feel intensely inviting and safe. The way black and white functions in “C’mon C’mon” feels similar to the way it does in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the book of which Johnny and Viv read to Jesse throughout the film. It feels like coming home.
Gracious performances pair well with the film’s intimate style of filmmaking. Phoenix, usually recognized for his more transformational performances in films like “Joker” and “Walk the Line,” is far more natural and emotionally available here, and he is wonderfully generous with the actors with whom he shares scenes. Phoenix is particularly fun to watch with Woody Norman, who is equal parts adorable and gleefully obnoxious as Jesse. The organic connection between the two actors is evident as soon as they meet on screen for the first time. Viv stands behind Jesse as Johnny arrives at their house, but Johnny pauses in the doorway before coming all the way inside. Viv whispers to Jesse, encouraging him to say hello. Phoenix immediately softens his body language as his attention turns from his sister to her son, and he begins almost mirroring the boy’s posture and speech, whispering back playfully, but carefully — letting Jesse lead the moment. Actors often get recognition for their grandiosity, but it would be lovely to see Phoenix recognized for this tenderly restrained performance.
It would be easy to mistake “C’mon C’mon” as dull or mundane. It’s methodically paced and devoid of hair-raising action or stirring monologues. But the truth of it is, “C’mon C’mon” offers something akin to genuine hope in a time of collective despair. It captures the heart of humanity and all the unpleasantness, generosity, and beauty that can entail. And — as Sondheim himself wrote — “isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?”