Mike Mills has a disarming way of kneading an airy freshness into material that might otherwise present as terminally mothballed. He worked small miracles with his 1970s coming-of-age drama 20th Century Women, based on a true story we've heard countless times before, and C'mon C'mon would seem no less reliant on scenes, set-ups and situations that range from the familiar to the frankly careworn: a bald synopsis would suggest this is another go round for the About a Boy plot, in which a gadabout male learns vital things upon being suddenly and unexpectedly paired with a tousle-haired moppet. Joaquin Phoenix is our solitary journalist hero, busy with an assignment that seems somewhat fanciful but proves good for the movie: going round America interviewing youngsters (played by non-professionals) about their hopes and fears for the future. Then his services are required closer to home, looking after his young nephew (Woody Norman) while his sister (Gaby Hoffman) departs to care for the boy's mentally unravelling father. Mills's trick - learnt and honed in his days overseeing pop promos - is to montage out a lot of the tired plot and process in favour of something more experiential, almost documentary-like: glimpses of all these people relating to one another on the fly, and an understanding of how folks approach and talk to one another when there's not a screenwriter around to nudge them in a particular direction. Nothing here appears forced or contrived; the dialogue between man and boy (in hotel rooms) and siblings (over the phone) has to have been at least semi-improvised. The result is a project that demonstrates a rare and very childlike sense of discovery. "Why not do something normal?," asks the journo when the kid's eccentricities get too much. "What's normal?," is the kid's response.
This also appears to have been Mills's own response to what's been expected of him, and to what we expect from a story framed this way. Forsaking blandly peppy colours, he hires Robbie Ryan to shoot in a crisp monochrome that confers a mythic quality on domestic activity, positioning C'mon C'mon somewhere between Paper Moon and those old Athena Man posters. Instead of a script, with its weary saddlebags of situation and exposition, Mills reaches for and quotes from texts the leads pick up along the way: these range from standard-issue bedtime reading (The Wizard of Oz) to the documentarist Kristen Johnson's filmmaking manifesto, treatises on motherhood and advice found on parenting websites. If the film has anything so prescriptive as a purpose, it would be flipping gender expectations: those fraught inter-sibling conversations suggest the journalist is being taught how to do a job - child raising - that society has traditionally assigned to its women. We're witnessing the long-overdue sharing of a burden of care. Mills pulls off at least one masterstroke in casting Hoffman, a performer who's long looked and sounded as though she's got her hands full and a head crowded with worries; to some degree, her stress is offset by the joy of watching Phoenix go light and have fun, on a shoot where his most Methody decision would have been which snacks to stuff in his pocket to keep his young co-star on side. From an early stage in C'mon C'mon, you may possibly start to hear in your head a sentiment expressed among the latter-day Biblical wisdoms of Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip's "Thou Shalt Always Kill", namely "Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile/Some people are just nice". C'mon C'mon is exceedingly nice: it stands among the most optimistic films to have emerged from America this century, even its title proving a term of encouragement. Yet its backbone is its acknowledgment that raising our kids right is the most important job we have. The future literally depends on it.
C'mon C'mon is now streaming via Channel 4.