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C’Mon, C’Mon

Director: Mike Mills (USA). Year of Release: 2021

Johnny is a radio journalist, whose job is to travel around the country interviewing children about their thoughts. Do they think that the world will get better or worse? What is their relation with their family? Which superpower would they like to have? Most of their answers are surprizingly bland – I’d have expected at least one of the kids would have mentioned the environment – but apparently these are based on real interviews with real children.

Johnny’s sister Viv would have preferred him to spend some of this attention on their mother when she was alive. They seriously rowed during her last days, and haven’t spoken since her death. They tentatively talk on the first anniversary of mum’s death, but it’s not a happy reunion. Viv’s ex-husband is having psychological problems and she needs to spend some time with him to see him through his problems. But she doesn’t want her kid Jesse to know how badly his father is doing.

Johnny offers to look after Jesse, but it’s not so simple. Jesse is a troubled soul. He likes to listens to classical music with the volume turned up to 11 on a Saturday morning. When he’s having problems, he pretends to be an orphan and only communicates as his alter ego. Johnny is also a bit of a fuck up – his relationship has just broken up and he has no experience of looking after a kid. And he has better things to do on Saturday mornings than listen to loud music.

Johnny’s job takes him around the country, and now he has Jesse in tow. They eat, they talk, they walk around the various cities that they visit. Every so often, it all gets too much for Jesse and he runs away – far enough to be out of Johnny’s sight, but not so far to put him in any danger. Once Jesse gets on a random bus, but Johnny is right behind him, so they just ride a bit together.

Have a guess – what do you think is going to happen here? Will Johnny find it more difficult to talk to a real kid than the ones he interviews? Will he and Jesse start off antagonising each other but get to love and learn from each other by the end? Will Johnny become a stronger, less lonely person and Jesse become more self-assured? Will the rift between Johnny and Viv be healed a little? I can’t give you any answers to these questions because of plot spoilers, but, you know.

Every so often, Johnny reads Jesse stories. Whereas Viv reads out from The Wizard of Oz, Johnny’s preferred reading seems to be those superficial novels and books of poetry which read like self-help books. The sort of books which are particularly beloved by smug middle class people whose problems are mainly First World ones, but they don’t want to be left out. To show that the books are Important, whenever Johnny reads from one, the name of its title and author appear onscreen.

On his travels, Johnny phones Viv regularly. At one point, he tells her that she doesn’t realise how hard it is to bring up a kid and to have a job. You presume he’s being knowingly ironic – you hope he’s being knowingly ironic. But there’s something about the thought process of the film makers that thinks that because it’s Joachim Phoenix, maybe bringing up a child on his own really is uniquely difficult.

I’ve no doubt that it’s harder for Johnny than the glossy magazines say, but it’s also much harder for I dunno, pretty much any single mother ever (and many mothers with a partner who’s there but not there). But because it’s Joachim, you’re supposed to think that the situation is more profound and more tragic. Simply put, C’mon C’mon just wouldn’t work if the main character were a woman.

Before we go, can we talk about the lack of colour? Like many recent films, C’Mon, C’Mon has been filmed in black and white. Sometimes, this helps the film, as with The Lighthouse, Macbeth and This Rain Will Never Stop. Here the main reason for the lack of colour seems to be to make the film look more Arty. But artistically, it makes many scenes less interesting. There is a parade in New Orleans and countless scenes in a park which would be seriously enhanced by a bit of colour.

The film finishes with more Q&A sessions with kids. As it happens, I once – just once – took part in a session like this. The researcher asked me to rank all sorts of life events like having a teacher read out something I’d written or receiving a school prize in order of importance for me. I would have found most of these excruciating, but no-one thought to ask me whether I enjoyed or hated the experience. All I had to do was add them to a list.

In a similar way, the surveys of kids – which appear throughout the film, reflect the prejudices of the questioner far more than they provide any useful information. I found myself asking how are we supposed to respond? Is this supposed to be cute? Or profound? Or trivial? (you might guess my answer) At no time are we given any context as to what will be done with these answers, why they are important. It is just a gimmick.

In a sense, the film works similarly. We watch some not particularly sympathetic people enact their traumas on screen. One of them is a kid, and another is Joachim Phoenix, so we’re expected to find them somehow loveable. Indeed, C’Mon, C’Mon has received very generous critical reviews. Which says much more to me about the critics than the film.

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