Honorable Mention: A quick glimpse at the one-sheet for Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon doesn’t inspire much hope. A black-and-white flick with both auto- and metafictional elements about a precocious kiddo bonding with his filmmaker uncle, courtesy of an American independent filmmaker pretty blatantly now making movies with an eye toward distribution from the likes A24 — bonus points if you can count the correct number of red flags in the first half of this sentence — C’mon C’mon surprises as a more focused study than the director’s previous twee affectations might promise. Though in fairness, perhaps it should only be that laundry list of portents that raises alarm; after all, Mills survived the homogenous mid-aughts indie scene intact (Thumbsucker), and has proved to be an interesting authorial presence even at his soppiest (Beginners). Still, it’s noteworthy when a film built upon such flimsy foundation, angled toward awards glory and subsequently primed with an early-November release date, succeeds against the odds.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, the aforementioned (documentary) filmmaker, who at the film’s start is working on a project that has school-aged children articulating ideas about the world. After stepping in as surrogate parent for his quirky nephew Jesse when his sister (an excellent Gaby Hoffmann) has to travel to California to aid in her ex’s (Jesse’s father’s) recovery, Johnny finds himself ill-equipped for the demands of total care. But what initially seems a fairly prosaic odd-couple bonding narrative — a pair of losing-the-kid-in-the-crowd moments, some “difficult” conversations, etc. — opens up into a far sturdier look at how we actualize as people through language. Johnny’s efforts with his young documentary subjects fold into his relationship with Jesse, where discourse ebbs and flows, finding mature footing in one scene while just as often fading into the primitivity of screams, repetition, and nonsensical babble. This dynamic is the key to C’mon C’mon’s entire aesthetic: The film’s cinematography, for instance, isn’t mere texture, but instead a reflection of Jesse’s still-binary world — love and hate, presence and absence — as well as a reflection of childhood’s heightened experiential state. And the film’s continuous dissonance of image and sound, Mills frequently rupturing their interplay, loosely mirrors Jesse’s evolving fear that he won’t remember this period of life, his growing awareness that something essential will inevitably be lost to time. It’s in this thread of memory — and the literal intergenerational dialogue that acknowledges this in the film’s emotional climax — that C’mon C’mon realizes its essential melancholy vein, and if the film is still occasionally littered with overly cutesy or on-the-(thematic)-nose instances, Mills carefully balances all of this with a delicate realism that speaks to the spectrum of age. In making study of the adult-child relationship, Mills here moves closer toward a poetic sensibility than he ever has before, upsetting cinematic trope in order to demonstrate that such a relationship is — not only, but also — one with our own past, nothing less than Whitmanian song of the self.