After winning his first Oscar for the vivid, violent portrait he etched in "Joker," Joaquin Phoenix shows his tender side in "C'mon C'mon," a heartfelt family dramedy from writer-director Mike Mills that hits theaters for the holidays and does its job in bracing, bittersweet fashion.
Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist who is on the road looking for America by talking to kids about how they see the future, with hope or fear or a combination of both. In lesser hands, "C'mon C'mon" could have been indigestible pablum, adventures in babysitting in which kids say the darndest things.
Luckily, Phoenix and Mills are allergic to tearjerking. The plot kicks in when Johnny's sister Viv (a fine, feisty Gaby Hoffmann), who's sidetracked by her bipolar ex-husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), pushes Johnny to take her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), along for the ride.
And so, "C'mon C'mon" becomes two movies -- real kids telling it straight about their perspectives and unmarried, childless Johnny facing his own uncertain future. Johnny and his sister, mourning the death of their mother after dementia robbed her of the memories that make a life, still have estrangement issues to untangle.
Phoenix hasn't been this warm and relatable on screen since "Her" in 2013. And young Norman is a genuine find -- a child who reacts to adult angst in ways that make you laugh and drive you crazy. His scenes with Phoenix have an unforced humor, plus a grit and grace borne of spontaneity instead pushy cuteness.
Shot in lustrous black-and-white by Irish camera wiz Robbie Ryan ("Marriage Story"), the film travels from Jesse's Los Angeles to Johnny's New York with stops in Detroit and New Orleans, with an eye -- not for pretty pictures -- but for the people and places that touch a nerve.
Phoenix, looking as cozily rumpled as an unmade bed, makes it clear that Johnny is a little shaken to learn that Jesse likes to pretend he's an orphan living in poverty and keeps asking him questions, such as "Why aren't you married?" and "What worries you?" and "What if you die?"
Mills is known for using the details of his life in his movies. His mother was the inspiration for Annette Bening's pioneer feminist in "20th Century Women," and his gay father, who came out in his 70s, inspired Christopher Plummer's Oscar-winning performance in "Beginners."
For "C'mon C'mon," Mills draws on his own first experience with fatherhood through the eyes of Johnny, a temporary, surrogate dad who's afraid he's not up to the job. Mills and his filmmaker wife, Miranda July ("The Future," "Kajillionaire"), are sometimes accused of making art that seems insubstantial and meandering on the surface.
It takes a closer look to suss out that what matters comes in the space between words. That's where the heart is most open to the pain and joy of just living. "C'mon C'mon" -- I won't spoil the significance of the title here -- is a quiet thing, but thanks to Mills and a note-perfect cast, you won't soon forget its delicate, soulful magic.