Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Austin Film Festival: 'C'mon C'mon' and give a tender Joaquin Phoenix your time

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Mike Mills' "C'mon C'mon," starring Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman, screened this year at Austin Film Festival.

An artsy dramedy with thoughtful things to say about the human condition? I know when A24 has my number. 

"C'mon C'mon," which screened at Austin Film Festival in late October, is a little sweet, a little sad and a little stylish, like plenty of films before it. With an end that stares you dead in the eye and says, "You're gonna be OK," though, it also leaves the viewer feeling expanded. Lesser flicks work in far smaller, cliché terms.

If you've got life on earth figured out, go off, king/queen. The rest of us could use something like this right now.

More Austin Film Festival:Why UT Austin alum Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is one of his best yet

Written and directed by Mike Mills, "C'mon C'mon" reunites radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) with his semi-estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann, phenomenal), and her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman). The story needs to reunite them, by the way, since a lifetime of brother-sister personality rifts finally turned into a chasm after the long decline and eventual death of their mother. Both siblings, too, have suffered relationship losses, from which they struggle to move on. 

When Viv is called away to clean up some of her relationship fallout, Johnny takes Jesse under his care, first for a little while and then for a long while. The pair travel from Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans, as Johnny works on his latest project: interviewing kids about their lives and their thoughts on the future. And with a strange kid under his care — one whose nine years of life have already brought heartache — Johnny's most intimate interview subject turns out to be the hardest to crack.

Gaby Hoffmann and Joaquin Phoenix play siblings mending a rift in "C'mon C'mon."

Mills previously directed 2016's "20th Century Women," a breathtaking, underrated work that also tucked into the warmth and frost of realistic family relationships. Set amid one kid's growing-up years in the late 1970s, that film trained a masterful eye toward the grand scope of life. Fans of "20th Century Women," which you should watch either immediately before or after "C'mon C'mon," will find a winning companion piece here. They share a few Mills flourishes: snippets of literary wisdom interspersed throughout the plot are a treat for a cultural collector, and flashbacks and flashforwards are filtered through a cinematic kaleidoscope that would make H.G. Wells proud.

'Dune' review: Space nuns, Shakespearian twinks, sinking sand

And "C'mon C'mon" is handsome from top to bottom in its own ways. Presented in luminous whites and inky blacks, most frames would look like gorgeous documentary work from a hardcover book when paused. (Did the movie need to be shot in black and white? Maybe not, and maybe it's a shortcut to saying, "Hey this is a fancy movie," but it looks nice, so why complain?)

Johnny's in-movie audio documentary project also provides welcome variety to the goings-on. The conceit activates one's spider-sense for maudlin tropes, but it never devolves into cheap or cloying moppet-sploitation. Instead, the interviews feel natural and candid, and they treat the fears and hopes of young people with a gentle, peer-like respect. (Even if the parallels to Johnny and Jesse's own conversations don't completely gel.) 

The difference between youth and adulthood, and the fundamental lack thereof, gives "C'mon C'mon" its most generous gesture. Phoenix, sometimes a neutron star of over-indulged idiosyncrasy onscreen, is as genial and natural as he's ever been playing Johnny. That might be thanks to sharing the screen opposite Norman, a young actor who carries heavy stuff and light riffs with ease and no apparent self-consciousness. 

Webb:Actually, Austin's zillion festivals are good

When the two are together, which is almost every moment of "C'mon C'mon," it's like a diagram of how Point A — curious youth, with its abundance of perception and cruel lack of vocabulary to express it — gets to Point B — weary, wounded adulthood, where you never know as much as you should but it's a little less scary, and a little easier to mend things, once you know that's true. 

A cynic (surely in possession of said self-awareness) would be wise to steer clear of Mills' latest starry-eyed survey of lives laid out end to end. I imagine there's a viewer who finds the whole "cross-country trip with a quirky kid" thing too saccharine a concept to even leave the house.

But if you're the type given to tears when a sad man tells a kid he loves very much that, if the kid grows up and forgets all the good times they've had together, he'll remind him about all of it, then c'mon. Give this one your time.

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman go on a cross-country trip in "C'mon C'mon."

'C'mon C'mon'

Grade: A-

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy

Director: Mike Mills

Rated: R for language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Watch: In theaters Nov. 19