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A beautiful soundtrack and expressive Joaquin Phoenix make 'C'mon C'mon' a real gem

One of the best films of the year stars Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman as an uncle and nephew exploring the country together.
Credit: A24

ST. LOUIS — Kids ask the toughest questions. Simple yet direct, the questions hit the adults, aka their caretakers, like daggers. We aren't sure what they should or shouldn't know at this stage in their life. Similar to the measurements we use in giving them medicine when they are sick, the answers are given in a carefully and triple-checked manner. It's this process of interactions and honest Q&A sessions that help craft the greatest human beings.

"C'mon C'mon," directed by Mike Mills, makes you feel all the great things that a movie should make you feel. A luminous soundtrack coating a poignant story that promotes an honest yet uplifting outlook on life, Mills' movie thrives on the conversations that take place between a radio journalist named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and a series of young kids he interviews in various cities across the country.

Compiling a feature for a job which the audience is never exactly privy to, Johnny travels over the country to different schools, giving a voice to the often voiceless. Emotionally troubled himself, Johnny wraps himself up in asking kids real world questions about important topics. According to Mills, the scenes between Phoenix and the kids were improvised, giving the film a loving backbone that makes it feel like more than just a flick.

But if those conversations give the film a unique form of energy, it's the relationship and chemistry that develops between Johnny and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), who accompanies him on this work trip to New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Instead of the usual trials and tribulations that carry the uncle and kid tale, the script is more heady and ambitious.

Johnny and Jesse challenge each other instead of instantly connecting to each other's minds for the sake of the plot. The older Johnny sees his work taken home, while Jesse gets to chip away at the icy exterior that encompasses his new friend.

Norman is a revelation in arguably the film's most important role. If Jesse is simply played as another weird young kid finding his life woken up by the uncle he didn't know, the film wouldn't punch as hard. But Norman finds some flight with Phoenix, producing some of the best moments of "C'mon C'mon."

Playing kindred spirits who explore the world together, asking young souls the vital questions that 99% of politicians snooze through, Phoenix and Norman give the film the strength that makes it memorable. Whether it's beginning a big chat with "blah, blah, blah" or letting their animalistic intensity fly open with wrestling impersonations, the actors latch onto their roles with earnest intent, calming each other's inner storms, at least momentarily.

Gaby Hoffman gives a performance that feels like it was made for her. She's tremendous as Jesse's mom and the faulty yet resilient gas pedal in Johnny's life; a brother and sister who lean on each other in unusual yet moving ways. Hoffman's Viv is the kind of matriarch who loves her kid immensely yet can also tell you how much of a brat he can be. Scoot McNairy's small yet potent turn as Jesse's mentally-afflicted father is heartfelt and impressive.

Phoenix could give a good performance in his sleep, but Johnny presents him with a different kind of role--and it pulls a different energy out of the actor. It's not a cop role or a mad man, just a soul-searching journalist who questions the world as much as he loves it. There's restraint and grace in his portrayal, a method that syncs up perfectly with the emotionally-nimble Norman. Their scenes carry the film to a very high place. Norman is one to keep an eye on.

Mills deserves a lot of credit for letting the two leads dictate the action. The script is ingenious and patient, and the direction is aggressively old school, coating the screen in black and white for the running time, taking filmgoers back to a time before CGI ruled the make-believe world. "C'mon C'mon" is more grounded and interested in what the future generations have to say.

Aaron and Bryce Dessner's score is among the best of the year, effortlessly connecting to the central story and staying in your head for the next few days. The right music can make a good movie sound so personal. The minds behind the great meditative rock band The National use a variety of instruments and guest voice Feist to transmit their musical signals here. I haven't stopped listening to the score.

I haven't stopped thinking about the movie. The way it tackles heady topics emotionally without getting unbalanced or messy is impressive, making it worth a second watch. It's the rare film that is honest yet makes you feel very good about life. Thank you, Mike Mills. By giving the kids a real voice, he made a gem of a movie.

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