There are nearly countless films that have covered the trials and tribulations of parenthood, running the gamut from “being a parent is impossible” to “raising a child is the greatest gift of all.” Mike Mills’ latest effort, C’mon C’mon, treads this ground and comes away playing to both sides of the spectrum—parenthood is impossibly difficult, but it’s also rewarding in ways never imagined.

C’mon C’mon follows Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a documentary filmmaker who travels across the country interviewing children and teens from all walks of life to gain a sense of what America’s young people think about the future. His journey is somewhat interrupted when his somewhat estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), leaves her son Jesse (Woody Norman) in Johnny’s care to deal with a situation with her husband. Single and without any children of his own, Johnny must learn to live with Jesse while balancing his career.

The plot sounds rudimentary, and that’s largely because it is; however, this basic framework allows the film to loosen up and adopt a more slice-of-life feel than most dramas of this ilk. Johnny’s life as a filmmaker takes the film across the country, keeping the plot fresh and allowing its characters to fall into situations and conflict naturally. The film takes place primarily in Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, with each destination bringing their own unique challenges for the characters, which ensures that the film never settles into boredom despite remaining relaxed.

Photo by Courtesy of A24 Films

A choice I found particularly inspired was how the film uses real books, essays, and even children’s stories to break up the plot and give us greater insight into the characters’ convictions and mental states. The use of Claire A. Nivola’s “Star Child” is particularly affecting, serving as one of the most beautiful and touching scenes of the year.

The film’s relaxed plotting owes a great deal of its success to its characters, with Woody Norman absolutely being the standout. It is one of the greatest child performances of the last few years; as Jesse, Woody gets to be just as quirky, sensitive, frustrated, joyous, and awe-struck as a 9-year-old child should be, and he absolutely nails it. He is immediately endearing and brings the entire film together by serving as a strong emotional centre.

Joaquin Phoenix is also terrific, giving Johnny a personable sense of humour as well as tinges of melancholy and frustration—he feels like a real person who’s just trying his best. Gaby Hoffmann is also very successful in this regard as a woman trying to support her bipolar, manic husband get the help he needs while worrying about her son. It would be easy for her role to fall into the “crazy mother” stereotype, but she remains grounded and relatable throughout.

Photo by Courtesy of A24 Films

Like in Mills’ past efforts, the characters who inhabit C’mon C’mon feel strikingly human and recognisable—it’s part of the reason why his films are able to naturally mine emotion and sentiment out of small moments where most films make those times feel manufactured or insincere. This film is an ode to parents and their hardships to be sure, but it’s also a celebration of life and how wondrous the world can be (especially through the eyes of a child).

All of this wonder is captured in stunning black and white cinematography, which helps each locale feel comfortable and inviting. C’mon C’mon is a film that you’ll want to spend forever in—there’s nothing quite like New York City in the winter captured in black and white, and the film is fully aware of that small sense of wonder. Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s simplistic yet emotive score also helps keep the mood consistent throughout.

C’mon C’mon is the rare film about life and parenthood that doesn’t force the point. Utilising a clever framing device and city-spanning journey, it allows Johnny and Jesse to naturally get to know each other without the need for huge monologues or heart wrenching confessions; instead, it understands that a bedtime story, phone call with a family member, or walk through the park are all you need to understand someone else. Life is full of little moments to be treasured that exist inside larger ones, and this film is an ode to just that—and this film understands that even if you forget something, there will always be someone there to remind you of it.

Rating: ★★★★½

You can find more of our coverage from Film Fest 919 here.