C’mon C’mon, Turn the Radio on!

C’mon C’mon emphasizes the importance of healthy communication between individuals through the story of an uncle and his nephew.

By Lamia Berki

Picture: Via Pixabay, CC0

Written and directed by Mike Mills, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman, the 2021 drama film C’mon C’mon succeeds in depicting a microcosm of human communication. From the very first scene, it is like it holds the audience by the hand and says: »C’mon, I will show you something you forgot.« There is nothing fancy about it, just an ordinary life presented by extraordinarily talented people.

Okay, I am going to ask you a series of questions and there are no right or wrong answers. So when you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be? Like what will the nature be like? How will your city change? Will families be the same? What will stay with you, and what will you forget? What scares you? What makes you angry? Do you feel lonely? What makes you happy?

What happens when we ask children these questions and actively listen to their answers? C’mon C’mon seems to be in search of the answer to this question. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist, travels the country with a mic in his hands to interview various children. Although he hears children coming up with remarkable answers about their thoughts on the future and life all the time, the film is more about how he learns to be an active listener and express his emotions by spending time with his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). He has a phone call with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) for the first time after a year since their mother passed away. Viv needs to go and help her ex-husband with his mental problems.  Johnny offers to take care of her son Jesse while she is away.

Jesse is a sharp, talkative child who is also very sensitive. It turns out that Johnny, a single person with no child, has a lot to learn about children. The duo starts to build a unique but delicate bond in no time. Although the way their relationship progress feels unique, it is also universal.

Are Adults Dulled?

From the beginning, Mill emphasizes the difference between adults and children with the scenes in which children answer the above questions in a relaxed, confident manner. Johnny on the other hand has a hard time rehearsing his introduction for the interview. The general notion that adults understand and analyze better is disturbed by the change of roles. Now adults are listening to the children who have a lot of genuine and optimistic ideas about life. Is it that they are being hopeful in their childish ways because they are naive, or that adults are conditioned by certain ways of thought and mainstream pessimism in which they find themselves?

The fact that Johnny and Viv do not talk anymore seems like a pretty normal problem between siblings who went their own ways in life. However, covering the problems up is not quite Jesse’s way of dealing with them. Jesse needs to make his feelings and thoughts clear and feel like he is listened to and understood. Although this need should sound familiar to everyone, what is different for adults is that they seem to have given up fighting for it. For him, talking is an easy yet necessary action like breathing. Viv and Johnny have a communication gap, whereas Jesse asks them whatever he wants.

C’mon C’mon

USA 2021
Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, and others

Viv is a great mom who gives a lot of importance to her son’s feelings and ideas. But ironically she cannot apply this approach to her relationship with Johnny. The film shows the disconnection of adults from their own childhood. It seems like for them to be adults is to leave their inner child, therefore the optimism, the strength to improve their communication, and the ability to stick to their feelings. Having learned from his mom, Jesse teaches Johnny various ways to make himself feel better in case he is stressed or cannot sleep. It is heartwarming to watch the child be a bridge between two siblings who have a hard time with each other.  It works as a means to reconnect with the idea that human communication cannot be taken for granted: There are questions that should be asked, apologies that must be given, disappointments to be healed, and moments that can be shared. To remind this, C’mon C’mon shows adults a slice of life in black and white although it is an emotionally fast-paced film that offers a rainbow of perspectives.

Opposing Forces

Writer and director Mills says that he shot the movie in black and white to give it a documentary-like feeling that also »does this nice double trick thing, or this opposing forces thing… It’s very real. It’s very simple. It’s not like any fancy art world going on. And it feels like a fable at the same time.« The opposing forces, black and white, can be put in an analogy with adulthood and childhood.

The audience sees Johnny struggling to come up with answers as he is interviewed by Jesse about why Viv and Johnny do not act like sister and brother. Johnny needs to express himself like a child, go through a lot of »blah blah« to be a good adult for his nephew. The monochromatic scenes evoke nostalgia among the audience who is more or less the same age as Johnny, since they would easily relate their childhood with black and white TV. This might inspire people to think that they too need to reevaluate themselves from the perspective of their inner child.

The Interweaving Effect of Interviewing

How Johnny conducts interviews with children by giving them the right to speak, allowing them to form and express their opinions proves crucial for Mills’ intention for the film: »The work offers the subjects to speak of things they have never spoken of, a chance to see themselves as subjects, worthy of time and attention. It offers the subjects the creation of an image of self.«

Just as Johnny interviews children to give them a space where they can get answers about their own confusion, adults in general need to get in touch with their inner child. That is why when Jesse rejects to be interviewed by Johnny and instead makes him the subject of the questioning, he seems to struggle with the answers. Then the unspoken problems between Jesse and Viv start to come to the surface only to be solved, and Johnny gets better at dealing with Jesse’s ups and downs as he himself learns how to express his emotions.

The phone calls Viv and Johnny have to help Johnny deal with Jesse’s emotional and physical well-being end up being a way to heal their own relationship. It evokes sympathy and understanding between the siblings. Mills captures the struggle that every parent and child can relate to from a point that emphasizes the importance of being aware of your faults, incapabilities, and limits.

Same Old Unique Story

The film does not fall into a cliche by implying that children are wise and adults are dulled. Although Jesse is smarter than a typical nine-year-old child, he gets angry and says his mother is horrible but also cries because he misses her, that is, acts like every other child. Children and adults both have a lot to learn from each other to communicate in a healthy way while preserving their individuality. C’mon C’mon reminds the audience that they might have forgotten key things in life as they grew older, just like Johnny reenacts their dialogue on tape because Jesse does not want to forget their time together. If you are also curious about what you might have forgotten, c’mon, go for this remarkable film!

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