Mike Mills’ latest film is a balm for these chaotic, heartbreaking times.
“When you think about the future, what do you imagine it will be?” Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) asks children of different backgrounds, races, genders and geographical origins as part of a darkly defined NPR-like podcast package he heads. The project is the backbone of writer-director Mike Mills’ latest heartbreaking film, Come on come on, describes the complications of dynamics across generations in black and white. The answers to his questions range widely. The children talk about fear of climate change and about the earth tumbling into burning oblivion; they discuss familial complications and the ways adults do not listen; they affect loneliness and loss. Their response gives the film an expansive quality – moral, intellectual, emotional – founded by the single family at the center: Johnny raises his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), who takes him from his home in Los Angeles. to the various cities he visits to work, while his novelist sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffman), helps Jesse’s father Paul (Scoot McNairy) during an episode of manic bipolar disorder in the Bay Area.
Not much is happening in come on come on. There is no excessive gesture of love. There are no archaeologists. There are no crying reassessments underlined by irreversible changes in the characters ’lives. While Johnny travels with Jesse in tow, and Viv struggles with Paul’s refusal to heal in the linear way that people who do not struggle with mental illness expect, the film finds a raw beauty in the wonders and heartaches of everyday life. It is a humble portrait of a family’s closer connections backed by a range of cinematic pleasures – expert sound design and cinematography; touching performances by Norman and Hoffman; and a fantastic performance by Joaquin Phoenix, operating on a register he has rarely found before. It’s a career that’s best for him – nice, empathetic, humane.
Black and white cinematography has a variety of effects. It may place the audience in a different time. It can reproduce a story like a fable. Here, everything, thanks to film photographer Robbie Ryan, is softened and embedded: the deep shadows of a bedroom cut by the light lit by a child; the velvety darkness of a busy New York City night; bodies in motion, flooded with joy and remorse. There’s a special composition I can not get out of my head: Viv and Johnny quarrel in flashback about their aggravated mother (Deborah Strang) plagued by dementia. He cares for her and gives in to a parent who loved him but never understood his sister, and Viv admonishes him for it. The doorway to the room they are discussing in acts as a frame within the frame, and within the other frame we see Viv sitting down, her body leading our eyes to Johnny, who is seen in a mirror. Johnny is a reflection while Viv is in the flesh; Family matches are a hall of mirrors.
Conversations bleed from one scene to another. A muted phone call opens the world of a flashback; there are transitions from diegetic to non-diegetic sound. With exuberant curiosity, Jesse carries Johnny’s recording equipment on his already lightweight frame to document the sounds of the world around him. (As Johnny tells Jesse, recording allows us to make an everyday thing immortal.) At Venice Beach, ocean waves and wheels hitting the sidewalk fill his ears. In New York City, the rumble of the train and the smooth movements of skateboarders catch his attention. I’m extremely partial to the New Orleans segment of the film that ends Johnny and Jesse’s peripatetic journey. The city feels so alive – a parade of costumed people bending glamor to their will, the pulse of the music and voices crackling in the air – I felt sorry for being transported to the film’s vision of it all, where people’s hearts are open. The clipping of Jennifer Vecchiarello is the key to the rhythm of the film’s sight and sounds, as in the muffled phone call flashback: Viv is driving in the car when Johnny’s voice comes on the radio, but Jesse, in the back seat, does not recognize his uncle’s voice . It’s a moment among many that shows us the gap Johnny and Viv are trying to bridge.
Mills’ work has always explored generational relationships within families – both found and born into – including the 2010s Beginners and 2016’s near-masterpiece 20th Century Women. Mills understands that for many of us, thinking about our family can be like hitting a bruise – or worse, like sticking our fingers into a gaping wound. come on come on moves to questions such as, How do we heal in relation to losing a parent? How is love the pain worth losing it? The film uses the growing relationship between Johnny and Jesse most profoundly, as the former desperately tries to connect, and the latter crams him in the way that only a lethargic child can. Jesse is young, in need of the annoying, a dynamic Norman experts forth. (“I mostly hang out with adults,” Jesse tells Johnny.) In particular, he is aware of what’s going on with his father and worries that such a future could be his fate.
If there’s one criticism I would give of Mills’ film, it’s how Jesse’s father is handled. I am currently diagnosed with bipolar type II. I have always been unsure of having children for fear of what I would pass on – generational trauma, anger, body images, an anxiety that puts me on the edge of new places, the mental illness that has disrupted and reshaped my life over and over again since I was 13 years old. If you yourself are dealing with mental illness, you are starting to notice some patterns in movies and TV series that are trying to solve it. There are times when the experiences of the person bound in illness are downplayed in favor of showing how that person distorts the lives of people around them. IN Come on come on, we will never hear Paul’s own perspective on his illness, or even hear his voice much beyond moments with Viv in his apartment as he prepares to be admitted to a mental hospital, framed by a telephone conversation with Johnny. McNairy’s performance can not help but tilt dangerously close to sight without interior to make it more concrete.
But Mills’ story is not about Paul. And it’s not necessarily about Viv, although she could easily be the center of her own film. come on come on quotes from Mothers: An essay on love and cruelty by Jacqueline Rose: “Mothers can not avoid being in touch with the most difficult aspects of a fully lived life. Along with the passion and pleasure, it is the secret knowledge they share. Why on earth should it occur to them to paint things brightly and innocently and for sure? ” And Hoffman, aware of the burdens her character carries, is a strong match for Phoenix in the role – first provisionally, then full tilt open, but even then, the film is undeniably Phoenix’s.
The 47-year-old actor, who has been a performer since childhood in the early 1980s, has had an increasingly dynamic career. In 2012’s difficult masterpiece The master and 2017 is violent You were never really here, he has proven to be brutal and crushed. In the 2014s Inherent load, he reveals the creation of a stone icon; his performance has a hazy, bouncy quality. In others, like the 2013s Her, he gives his character an undeniable longing. His physicality has been both guarded and wild. In the 2019s Joker, which gave him an Oscar, Phoenix is at its most flashy, his emaciated frame playing out sharp movements and facial expressions. It’s the opposite of his performance in Come on come on. Here, Phoenix is soft. He possesses a warmth that shines from start to finish. Like Johnny, Phoenix listens to people and the world around him with full curiosity. This is where the bravura lies in the performance: his ability to seemingly justify be.
come on come on is a testament to Phoenix’s hard-fought talents and abilities to ever reach a level as a performer, but it’s amplified by everything around it. With all its softness and sweetness, the story never tips to be saccharine. It’s the kind of movie we do not often get in Hollywood – one that turns on the camera in everyday life, to cope and connect and survive to the next day and the next and the next.