Performances that deviate from our perceptions of an actor’s work and persona are both clichéd and guaranteed awards season bait, a palpable demonstration of range that helps qualify what is so inherently subjective. Sometimes, a performance lands with such stunning impact that considering the calculations and prospects surrounding it feels beside the point. It’s better to allow it to wash over you, soaking you in emotions that you hadn’t realized the actor was capable of accessing with that much clarity.
Joaquin Phoenix in C’mon C’mon is one such performance.
Fresh off the unhinged mania of his Oscar-winning role in Joker, Phoenix aims for more modest heights as Johnny, a radio journalist traveling the country asking children from different backgrounds about the world around them. Johnny’s work is upended by his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who asks him to look after her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman) while her husband struggles with mental health issues. Jesse is a handful, and Johnny isn’t equipped to be an uncle, but the two forge a bond, especially as Viv’s stay extends beyond that initial few days, and Johnny brings Jesse further into his world as a broadcaster.
Given the complex, involved roles and stories that Phoenix has previously played, you might assume that C’mon C’mon – at first glance – is either beneath or incompatible with his volcanic talents. The story itself is very familiar: a slightly harried adult learning life’s lessons through their budding connection with a unique and challenging child. Perhaps the narrative trope cleared the way for Phoenix to tap into brighter emotional frequencies and put aside the high-octane intensity that marks much of his work.
C’mon C’mon is Phoenix at his most accessible and inviting as an actor. He plays Johnny with a sweet tenderness that is frankly disarming, making you feel like you’re intruding on a cherished moment between parent and child. Phoenix’s screen presence is undeniable, but he has rarely radiated such warmth. His smiles are quietly infectious; his laughter is genuine and free from any irony or subtext. The emotions he pulls out of you as you watch are surprising but are absolutely earned. His chemistry with Woody Norman is lovely, the two actors modulating between doting affection and rambunctious youthful energy. Not a single moment that Phoenix is on-screen feels false, forced, or overly conscious. Instead, it feels natural and beautifully gentle.
Mike Mills takes full advantage of Phoenix’s endearing performance, writing and directing a story as earnest and truthful as its star. C’mon C’mon isn’t embarrassed by the predictability of its plot structure, and Mills is more than willing to hit similar story beats that we’ve seen many times before. He improves them by focusing on Johnny and Jesse’s budding relationship rather than the plot’s built-in sentimentality. Their travels around the country aren’t a plot contrivance but a genuine necessity of Johnny’s job commitments. Jesse’s increased involvement in Johnny’s work blooms from those circumstances and further strengthens their bond without directly calling attention to it. Mills refuses every opportunity to pat himself and his story on the back, and the film is all the better for it.
Occasionally, Mills gets ahead of himself. C’mon C’mon’s sequencing can be challenging, cutting into the past or other places in the present to flesh out the complicated dynamics and history of Johnny’s family. The choices are most frustrating when it interrupts Jesse and Johnny’s scenes, disrupting the natural rhythm of their interactions and keeping us from fully absorbing the moment. To his credit, Mills largely rejects the cloying indulgences that often accompany this type of story. However, there are a few moments that might’ve shone more brightly by staying a beat or two longer with them.
The one indulgence that Mills allows himself is the use of black-and-white cinematography. Its narrative purpose doesn’t fully crystallize until the very end, and C’mon C’mon would’ve been just as successful in full color. Still, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s monochromatic palette is aesthetically pleasing and helps enrich the film’s core relationship by muting potential background distractions.
Gabby Hoffmann and especially Woody Norman give exemplary performances of their own, but C’mon C’mon is Phoenix’s film. What’s remarkable and slightly ironic is that Phoenix achieves this new level of performance by taking a step back from the tireless command he usually exerts on-screen. Here, he simply exists as a relatable human being, drawing you in with his natural charisma and his open-hearted approach to the character of Johnny. C’mon C’mon opens Phoenix up in ways we’ve never seen before, making him approachable and further cementing his stature as an unmissable performer of his generation.
C’mon C’mon is available to rent on demand.