When I first watched C’mon C’mon, I knew for a fact I would need to see it again to be able to express what the film meant to me and my life. I’ve always used films as a way to express my own inner anxieties and learn a bit about the world around me. Some of my favorite movies of all time were there for me in really confusing times in my life and were able to wrap me in a warm blanket and say “everything's gonna be okay, your feelings are validated.” C’mon C’mon reminded me that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.
I was fortunate enough to see Mike Mills' latest opus at the Nashville Film Festival. This was a week after I received some news that would change the direction of my life. It was a very uncertain time, one that was so stressful to me that I considered not even going to the festival. But I had saved up the money for the occasion. I decided I couldn't live my life in fear of the uncertain and went anyway.
I actually didn’t know that I would be seeing C’mon C’mon there because it was the surprise movie at the festival. Everyone who had purchased a ticket to the surprise screening was shouting out their guesses. I had figured it was going to be The French Dispatch because they were playing the film’s score in the auditorium. When the speaker announced that we were seeing C’mon C’mon, excitement radiated through my body. I had recently rewatched 20th Century Women in anticipation of Mike Mills’ newest and absolutely loved it, so, needless to say, I was delighted. The moment the film started, in its crisp black and white and 1.66:1 aspect ratio, I knew the film was going to make me bawl. Why bring up the aspect ratio? Well, because the aspect ratio in the film reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which means there’s less space on the screen and more black bars than C’mon C’mon, but both films’ black bars go vertically instead of horizontally. I believe that films can have similar tones and present a familiar feeling while being wholly unique and, sometimes, it has everything to do with their aesthetic sensibilities. Somehow, C’mon C’mon instantly connected with me because its warmth reminded me of a film that has provided me with much comfort over my life. It’s a Wonderful Life has always been there for me, reminding me of the joys of the human experience. C’mon C’mon has similar themes, but it is presented in a much different way. Mills’ film is far more somber and lowkey than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it offers a similar feeling of catharsis.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as radio journalist Johnny. He interviews kids about their opinions on the world and their sense of place in it. After reconnecting with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), he realizes she is struggling to both take care of her son Jesse (Woody Norman) and deal with her ex-husband's (Scoot McNairy) mental health struggles. Johnny offers to help his sister and therefore mend their relationship by watching Jesse while Viv goes to take care of the boy’s father. As the film progresses and Viv is forced to remain with her ex-husband for longer than she expected, Johnny ends up taking Jesse on the road with him for his work, where they learn more about one another.
The film is a coming-of-age story, but the person who comes of age is Johnny, not Jesse. While Jesse’s philosophies do not change in the film, the way Johnny sees the world changes after spending time with Jesse. Portrayed terrifically by Woody Norman, who is wise beyond his years, Jesse is a precocious kid with a whole lot of questions about the world. Sometimes, he doesn’t want to express his fears or insecurities as Jesse. Instead, he pretends to be an orphan with no place to go.
There are times when he has no issues in expressing his angst and confusion as himself. There are also times when he cries and runs away when he feels like he’s not being listened to. Still, Jesse feels shame when he does this, suddenly returning to reality and realizing what he has done is childish. He’s more self-aware and conscious than your typical nine-year-old, but he’s still a nine-year-old.
Johnny has his own unchecked emotions, even as an adult. Unlike Jesse, who will shout out how he feels, Johnny censors himself. He’s a quietly broken man who, as we learn throughout the film, has a lot of repressed emotions he tries to keep at bay. We see Jesse ask abrupt questions about Johnny and his life; questions no one would be comfortable asking if they weren’t nine years old. “Were you in love?” or “why are you alone?” We see Johnny confronted with these personal questions that catch him off guard. He answers Jesse to the best of his ability, but there is a lot of hinting at the idea that Johnny doesn’t have his life nearly as in order as he would like to believe. Throughout the film, Johnny comes to better terms with his repressed emotions and is able to speak them out to the open. Meanwhile, Jesse starts to keep his high-lows hidden deeper beneath the surface.
The film is interspersed with Johnny interviewing kids for his work. He asks them life's deepest and most existential questions about the world, division, religion and self-actualization. Johnny experiences further revelations through these interviews as he listens to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. By the end of the film, we understand what Mills has been attempting to expound: we will never figure everything out while we are here. We will always in some way be like Jesse, confused and lost in our own skin, constantly discovering new things and not knowing how to vent our frustrations. In the end, it’s okay: as long as we c’mon c’mon (get it) and let beautiful, ever-changing life wash over us.
Witnessing that conclusion in a theatre was very cathartic to me, akin to how I feel when watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Both Johnny and George Bailey start to understand their worth. However, with Johnny, it is an understanding that we might not get the perfect ending George Bailey gets in It’s a Wonderful Life. You just gotta “cmon, cmon” anyway because the world is filled with wonderful surprises. Sitting in the Nashville theater, I had to stay a lot longer into the credits than usual, reconciling my tears. I knew this film was special to me. Not only because of the time and place I saw it in, but because of its poignant message that I will continue to hold onto. We live in a confusing, baffling world, but there’s something unconventionally beautiful about not having all the answers.