The perspective of children is a difficult thing to capture on film without it feeling too cutesy and saccharine, looking at you Belfast. Mike Mills' terrific C'mon C'mon manages to genuinely give worth the thoughts and views of young children. It is the quality from the film that sticks with you long after seeing it. Children are routinely asked "What do you think the future is going to be like" and the film listens to their often profound responses.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist who is traveling to U.S. cities asking that question of the country's youth. The plot mechanics conveniently force Johnny to watch his young nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). Johnny's sister (Gaby Hoffman) has to help Jesse's father (Scoot McNairy) get help during a particularly bad bipolar episode. Johnny soon finds that he cannot just be an observer to Jesse's situation and must help him get through a complex and challenging situation. The plot is a minefield of possible emotional manipulation but Mills and his cast are too skilled to let things devolve into sappy sentimentality.
C'mon C'mon is shot in stark, high-contrast black and white. It is shot on location in Detriot, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans. Mills takes time to let each city shine both in the locations highlighted and the real-life young minds that are interviewed. The mixture of these documentarian elements with the narrative is seamless. These moments are not like "Kids Say the Darndest Things." The answers these subjects give are full of honest observations, fears, and most strikingly hope. I honestly left the film feeling this young generation's hope for a good future.
While those interview moments give the film a broader scope, the main focus here is on Johnny and Jesse's relationship. Phoenix and Norman have incredible chemistry. Phoenix is able to shed the oddball nature of his recent roles and play a normal, schlubby guy. Norman is a revelation. Few child performances can match the wit and honesty that Mills gets from this young actor. Together, they create a moving relationship that carries the sometimes repetitive plot. They are both characters with fears but together find joy and trust in each other.
Mills gets the best from his actors here. The film could so easily be an eye-rolling crowd pleaser but instead is a profound film on the inner lives of children, their fears and hopes, and what they think the future will be like. Sprinkled throughout the film are read passages from essays and books, each credited on screen. These additions add even more profound nuggets that you will take with you from the film. Mills has created a generous film, sharing many beautiful sentiments with his audience.