Review: ‘C’mon C’mon,’ starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman

November 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (center) in “C’mon C’mon” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/A24)

“C’mon C’mon”

Directed by Mike Mills

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities (including Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans), the dramatic film “C’mon C’mon” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A never-married, middle-aged bachelor, who works as a radio producer, finds out for the first time in his life what it feels like to be a parent when he takes care of his estranged sister’s 9-year-old son for an extended period of time.

Culture Audience: “C’mon C’mon” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching emotionally intimate, well-acted movies about family relationships.

Woody Norman and Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/A24)

What does “family” mean to you? The answer depends on who’s answering the question. The dramatic film “C’mon C’mon” (written and directed by Mike Mills) is an emotional portrait of three family members coming to terms with their individual identities and what the concept of “family” means to them. The movie also takes an equally impactful, broader look at children’s various perspectives of the world, because the male lead character (who’s a radio producer) travels across the U.S. to interview children about the world for his radio show.

As the three family members who go through various ups and downs in the story, Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman give noteworthy performances that will make more than a few viewers shed some tears, but not in a manipulative, melodramatic way. The acting in the movie looks natural and somewhat effortless. In some ways, “C’mon C’mon” is a road trip movie, but the real journey is how the three main characters discover new things about each other and themselves.

“C’mon C’mon,” whose cinematography is entirely in black and white, was filmed from November 2019 to January 2020, before the COVID-19 virus infection rate turned into a pandemic. However, the movie seemingly aims not to identify the story by any particular year in the early 21st century. “C’mon C’mon” made the rounds at a few film festivals (such as the Telluride Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival and New York Film Festival), because of the movie’s pedigree as an awards contender. The entire story of “C’mon C’mon” takes a low-key approach, so don’t expect extreme plot developments or surprising twists to happen.

In the movie, Phoenix is a radio producer named Johnny, who lives in New York City, but he travels a lot because of his job. Johnny is a never-married bachelor in his 40s, he has no children, and he’s currently not dating anyone. Later on in the film, it’s revealed that Johnny hasn’t had a special love in his life for quite some time. He’s essentially “married” to his work. He’s good at his job, but he doesn’t seem emotionally attached to anyone. That’s about to change.

Johnny is currently working on a series that interviews children from all over the United States. In the interviews, Johnny asks them things such as “What do you think about the future?” or “What scares you?” or “What makes you angry?” Sometimes, the children are interviewed with their parents in the room, while other times no adults are in the room except Johnny and a co-worker. Throughout the movie, various children are shown being interviewed by Johnny. Most times, they appear on screen, but other times, Johnny is seen playing back snippets of these audio interviews.

“C’mon C’mon” opens in Detroit, where Johnny is doing some of these interviews. A 13-year-old girl who’s being interviewed says that adults have to pay more attention to what’s around them. Throughout the movie, many of the children’s comments express a hopeful but concerned outlook on life. Many of the kids worry about some of the problems that they have to deal with (a decaying environment, racism, economic insecurities) that they think will become heavier burdens when they are adults.

One day, when he’s in a hotel room, Johnny gets a call from his estranged younger sister Viv (played by Hoffmann), who is is only sibling. Viv, who is a single mother living in Los Angeles, has called to tell Johnny that she needs him to come to Los Angeles to temporarily take care of her 9-year-old son Jesse (played by Norman), who barely knows Johnny. Viv explains that Jesse’s father Paul (played by Scoot McNairy), who moved to Oakland (which is about 370 miles north of Los Angeles), is going through some personal issues, and Viv wants to be there for Paul. Viv and Paul (who were never married) are no longer a couple, and she has sole custody of Jesse.

The conversation is polite but strained. There’s obvious tension between Johnny and Viv, which they don’t want to get into over the phone. However, it’s revealed in this phone call that Johnny and Viv have some lingering resentment toward each other over their mother, who died about a year ago after an extended period of being in ill health. Eventually, viewers find out that Johnny and Viv disagreed over how their mother should be cared for in her final months of life and whether or not taking her off of life support should be an option.

Johnny agrees to put some of his work on hold to go to Los Angeles and look after Jesse. When he arrives at Viv’s home, Jesse is shy with Johnny, an uncle he hasn’t seen for years. However, Jesse is aware that Viv and Johnny have barely spoken to each other and have had an estranged relationship for quite some time. And this family discord isn’t just because of Johnny and Viv’s mother.

The tension between Viv and Johnny is also because Johnny disapproves of Paul. Not everything about Viv and Paul’s history with each other is revealed, but enough comes out in conversations for viewers to find out why Johnny considers Paul to be a disruptive force in their family. It’s implied that Johnny never really thought that Paul was good enough for Viv, especially because of the emotional pain she went through by being in a relationship with Paul.

Paul is bipolar, which is not specifically said out loud in the movie, but it’s implied based on his symptoms and other clues in the movie. For example, Jesse has a children’s book called “The Bipolar Bear Family: When a Parent Has Bipolar Disorder,” written by Angela Ann Holloway. Paul has been in a psychiatric facility before to get treatment for his mental illness.

Paul apparently doesn’t have any close relatives who can look after him, because Viv seems to be the only person in his life who’s taken on the responsibility of getting him the treatment that he needs. And because Paul and Viv were never married and are no longer a couple, it explains the murky situation that comes about when Viv has to make certain decisions about Paul’s medical care. Paul is shown briefly in the movie in present-day scenes and in flashbacks.

Paul is a symphony musician, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area because he wanted to work for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. As Viv explains to Johnny, “the transition fucked him up,” and Paul is having some kind of breakdown. Viv needs to go to the San Francisco Bay Area to see about convincing Paul to check himself into another mental health facility again. She would rather that he get treatment voluntarily, because she doesn’t want to be the one to force him into an involuntary admission to a psychiatric institution.

Meanwhile, Jesse is aware that his father has bioplar disorder, but no one in the family has ever told him any specific details about why Paul’s illness is severe enough that he has to get in-patient treatment for it. (The word “suicidal” is never mentioned to Jesse, but it’s implied that Paul has been a danger to himself.) All Jesse knows is that his father sometimes has to go into a hospital when he has another episode that needs treatment. The stigma of mental illness is realistically portrayed in “C’mon C’mon,” as something that family members feel secret guilt or shame about, because they often try to hide or deny the illness.

During the course of the movie, Viv has to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area longer than she expected. And so, Johnny ends up taking care of Jesse for longer than Johnny expected. The majority of “C’mon C’mon” is about how Johnny and Jesse’s uncle/nephew relationship evolves to the point where Johnny becomes the closet thing that Jesse has to a father figure. At one point, Johnny contemplates whether or not he should move to Los Angeles.

Johnny’s caretaking of Jesse doesn’t happen in one, long continuous stretch. There’s a point in the movie where Viv returns to Los Angeles and then has to go back to the Bay Area again, but Johnny can’t be in Los Angeles because of work commitments. Jesse begs Viv to let him stay with Johnny in New York City and then travel with Johnny on the job. Johnny and Jesse’s travels are not spoiler details, because they’re shown in the movie’s trailers.

Jesse is a precocious and curious child who loves to read. Viv encourages Jesse to be a free thinker and allows him to question things. It’s why Jesse asks Johnny some questions that make Jesse uncomfortable, such as why Johnny isn’t married. Johnny says that he was with someone named Louisa, but she broke up with him. Johnny says he still loves Louisa, who is not seen in the movie.

One question that’s harder for Johnny to answer is why he and Viv stopped talking to each other for a long time. Johnny tactfully explains to Jesse that it’s because he and Viv couldn’t agree on the caregiving for their dying mother. The mother’s cause of death is never mentioned in the movie, but there are flashback scenes of Viv and Johnny visiting their mother on her deathbed.

There were resentments and jealousies between the two siblings before their mother got sick. Viv always felt that she never got the full approval of her mother and that Johnny was the favored child. Johnny felt like Viv’s tension with their mother was the reason why Viv seemed to not be as compassionate with their dying mother as Johnny thinks Viv should have been.

Johnny doesn’t want to badmouth Viv to Jesse, so he doesn’t tell Jesse these things. However, Johnny and Viv do confront their bitter feelings for each other with arguments over the phone. Paul’s current mental breakdown has also triggered bad memories of when Johnny told Viv to break up with Paul in the past, when Viv wasn’t ready to end the relationship. Viv thinks that Johnny meddled too much in her relationship with Paul.

Soon after Johnny begins taking care of Jesse, Jesse tells Johnny that Viv correctly predicted that Johnny would be a little awkward with Jesse, but that Johnny will eventually get used to Jesse. During the time that Johnny spends with Jesse, he finds out that taking care of a child is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Viv has certain bedtime rituals for Jesse that Jesse wants Johnny to do too. Jesse also shows signs of hyperactivity, so Johnny calls Viv for advice on how to get Jesse to go to sleep.

Another thing that Johnny has to learn is how to be a responsible caregiver when it comes to children’s meals. Like a typical bachelor who lives alone and travels frequently, Johnny has a refrigerator that is not stocked with much that’s appropriate for a child. When Johnny takes Jesse with him to go grocery shopping, Johnny gets a scare when Jesse wanders off and Johnny frantically tries to find him.

The movie shows in a lot of tender and quiet moments how this uncle and nephew eventually learn to trust each other, like each other, and eventually become friends with each other. Johnny and Jesse find out that that they have a lot more in common than they originally thought. They both love Viv but they both dislike how she lets Paul’s problems consume her. Johnny and Jesse are also more comfortable talking about things outside of themselves rather than their innermost feelings. When Johnny tries to interview Jesse for his radio show, Jesse is very reluctant and says no.

However, Jesse notices that Johnny likes to make audio diaries, so Jesse starts making his own audio diaries too. Johnny also shows Jesse how to operate Johnny’s professional audio equipment. There’s an adorable scene that takes place on California’s Venice Beach where Johnny and Jesse discover that Jesse not only likes operating this equipment, he could end up having a passion for radio. When Jesse arrives in New York City, Johnny introduces Jesse to two other radio producers who work closely with Johnny: Roxanne (played by Molly Webster) and Fern (played by Jaboukie Young-White), who are both very friendly to Jesse.

One of the most effective aspects of “C’mon C’mon” is how unpretentious it is in showing that learning and protection between adults and children can go both ways. Too often, dramas with a story of an adult taking care of a child for the first time will put an emphasis on what the adult is going to teach the child. However, “C’mon C’mon” shows that Johnny learns a lot from the children he’s in contact with, whether it’s someone he met briefly during an interview, or a nephew who turns out to be a special and unexpected friend. The movie has a pivotal scene in New Orleans that’s an example of how powerful a child’s emotional protection and wisdom can be.

The black-and-white cinematography gives “C’mon C’mon” a timeless vibe to it that looks best in the New York City scenes. In other scenes, such as in the vibrancy of a New Orleans street parade or in the sunny glow of Venice Beach, some viewers might wish that the movie had been in color. The movie’s lack of color doesn’t take away from the exemplary performances and screenplay for “C’mon C’mon,” which have such authenticity, it will resonate with viewers.

In “C’mon C’mon,” Phoenix gives an understated and nuanced performance as a “regular guy” (the type of character that he usually doesn’t play), who finds out from a child that he’s not as emotionally mature as he thought he was. In the role of perceptive Jesse, Norman gives a breakout performance that will stand as one of the best from a child actor in a 2021 movie. Hoffmann brings heartache and grit to her performance as Viv, who feels conflicted and guilty over the messiness in her life, while doing her best to make what she thinks are the right decisions.

“C’mon C’mon” could have been a very sappy movie that goes off in very phony directions. Fortunately, it is not, although some viewers might be a little bored if they’re expecting more exciting action in this movie. As for the movie’s most emotional scenes, there are some genuinely sentimental, tearjerking moments, but this is not a tragic story. There are no over-the-top villains or crazy adventures.

It’s a story grounded in reality about people trying to get through life in the best way that they can. What inspired the title of this movie? It’s from one of Jesse’s audio diary entries, where he says that when unpredictable things happen in life, you just have to “c’mon c’mon.” This human resilience is celebrated eloquently in “C’mon C’mon.”

A24 released “C’mon C’mon” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘A Quiet Place Part II,’ starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Djimon Hounsou

May 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place Part II” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

“A Quiet Place Part II”

Directed by John Krasinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and unnamed parts of the U.S. East Coast during a post-apolcalyptic time period, the horror sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow and her three underage children try to survive giant lizard-like monsters that have taken over Earth, but her eldest child decides to run away from their shelter to find other survivors. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who saw 2018’s “A Quiet Place,” the sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” will appeal to people who are interested in watching suspenseful “creature feature” horror films that aren’t too gory.

Cillian Murphy in “A Quiet Place Part II” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

“A Quiet Place Part II” (written and directed by John Krasinski) doesn’t fall into the sequel trap of recycling too much of the same story as its predecessor, but it definitely helps to see the first “A Quiet Place” movie, which was released in 2018. “A Quiet Place Part II” is a more action-oriented thriller than “A Quiet Place,” because so much of the horror in “A Quiet Place Part II” is happening at different locations at the same time. Thanks to skillful film editing from Michael P. Shawver, “A Quiet Place Part II” viewers will often feel like they’re in a dimension where they can experience what’s going on in more than one place simultaenously, as the tension ramps up in each scene.

It’s a big contrast to “A Quiet Place,” which focused on one location at a time, during one family’s fight for survival in an apocalyptic world where giant lizard-mutant-looking aliens have taken over Earth. In “A Quiet Place,” viewers aren’t shown what life for this family was like before the apocalypse. But it’s eventually revealed that the creatures that have invaded Earth and massacred most of the world’s humans are blind and can’t smell but have an extremely acute sense of hearing. Therefore, when outside, apocalypse survivors have to be very quiet because any sound can attract the alien monsters, which show no mercy in devouring any living being.

“A Quiet Place Part II” was made with the assumption that most people seeing the movie have already seen “A Quiet Place” or know what the movie is about, including the spoiler information. This sequel is best appreciated with full knowledge of these details, or else viewers might initially feel a little bit lost or confused by what’s going on in the story. The ending of “A Quiet Place” shows the discovery of a way to fight the monsters, and this defense mechanism is used a lot in “A Quiet Place Part II.” Knowing what happened in “A Quiet Place” goes a long way in explaining key aspects of “A Quiet Place Part II.”

The family at the center of this crisis are the main human characters who were in “A Quiet Place,” which takes place somewhere in the suburbs of upstate New York. The family members are Lee Abbott (played by Krasinski, who directed and co-wrote “A Quiet Place”); Lee’s wife Evelyn Abbott (played by Emily Blunt, who is married to Krasinski in real life); their daughter Regan Abbott (played by Millicent Simmonds); son Marcus Abbott (played by Noah Jupe); and son Beau Abbott (played by Cade Woodward). In “A Quiet Place,” Regan is about 12 or 13 years old, Marcus is about 10 or 11 years old, and Beau is about 5 or 6 years old.

In “A Quiet Place,” the Abbotts spend most of their days in a remote, abandoned farmhouse that has an underground bunker rigged with ways to alert them if the alien monsters are nearby. The family members venture outside when they need food, medicine or supplies. Even though they have a truck that works, they usually travel by foot, so as not to cause any noise that will attract the monsters. (One of the plot holes in “A Quiet Place” is a pivotal part of the movie where Regan has to drive the truck back to the farmhouse, and the engine noise unrealistically doesn’t attract the monsters.)

[Spoiler alert] In the beginning of “A Quiet Place,” a tragedy occurs where Beau is killed by one of the monsters. The movie then fast-forwards to about year later. Evelyn is pregnant, and her childbirth scene is one of the most tension-filled highlights of “A Quiet Place,” considering it’s nearly impossible for someone to give birth silently. And near the end of “A Quiet Place,” Lee dies when he sacrifices himself in order to protect his children. [End of spoiler alert.]

The beginning of “A Quiet Place Part II” gives a glimpse of the alien invasion when it began, so Lee is briefly shown during this terrifying opening sequence that was teased in the first “A Quiet Place Part II” trailer. The rest of the movie, which starts on day 474 of the alien invasion, shows a widowed Evelyn and her kids Regan, Marcus and a newborn son (whose name is not mentioned in the movie) trying to find a new shelter and other survivors. Evelyn ha a shotgun rifle with her for protection.

The Abbotts leave the abandoned farmhouse, which was destroyed in the monster battle that took place in the first movie. The house is set on fire, which is symbolic of the Abbotts trying to burn away the painful memories of a place they can no longer call their home. As in the first “A Quiet Place,” the family members don’t wear shoes when walking outside, because shoes make noises that the alien monsters can hear.

Regan, who happens to be deaf, is the most intelligent and most analytical member of this family. Just like in the first “A Quiet Place” movie, Regan figures out ways to save lives by outsmarting the monsters. For now, the Abbotts are on the move to find other survivors.

The trailer for “A Quiet Place Part II” shows a lot of what happens in ths movie’s plot: While walking in a field near an abandonded building, Evelyn’s foot sets off a booby trap that was placed there by another survivor. The man who set the booby trap is a deeply cynical loner who is at first hostile about letting the Abbotts or anyone else stay with him in his bunker. Regan and this man end up traveling somewhere together. And there are other survivors who encounter the monsters in a recreational park.

The man who lets the Abbotts stay with him is named Emmett (played by Cillian Murphy), and he happens to be someone who knew Evelyn’s late husband Lee as a friend. It’s strongly implied that if Emmett had not known Lee, Emmett might have treated this family more harshly and probably would have refused to let the Abbotts stay with him. Emmett (who also has a gun for protection) is bitter and grieving because he lost his family during the apocalypse. Emmett says out loud to the Abbott family that whatever humans are left in the world aren’t worth saving.

Of course, there’s a lot more that happens in the story—always with the threat of the monsters showing up when they hear any noises. Marcus gets his foot caught in a bear trap, so it’s easy to imagine what happens when he screams out in pain. While his foot his healing, Regan comforts Marcus by having him listen to music on a transister radio with headphones. Marcus tells Regan that the Bobby Darin song “Beyond the Sea” is playing on a repeat loop. She doesn’t think it’s a mistake or coincidence.

Regan decides to leave Emmett’s shelter when she figures out that there are other survivors hinting at their location through the repeat playing of “Beyond the Sea.” The movie explains how she’s able to decipher this clue and get a general idea of where the other survivors are. And when Evelyn finds out that Regan is missing, she begs Emmett to go looking for Regan.

It’s why Regan and Emmett are separated from Evelyn, Marcus and the baby for most of the movie. And, as revealed in the movie’s trailer, there are many other human survivors. Some are friendly and welcoming, while others are most definitely not. The alien monsters aren’t the only deadly creatures roaming around, because some of the humans are very homicidal too.

Because the characters in “A Quiet Place” have to stay silent when outdoors, there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there would be in a typical post-apocayptic horror movie. The character development is at a bare minimum, because these humans are just trying to survive and don’t have time to sit around having deep conversations. Evelyn is still a fierce and brave protector of her children, Regan is a fearless risk-taker, and Marcus is a mostly obedient child who finds his inner strength in this sequel.

However, the addition of new characters in “A Quiet Place Part II” was necessary to advance the story. Emmett represents the devastation of someone who has isolated himself from the rest of the world because he’s lost everyone he loved. He’s not suicidal, but he’s lost faith and hope in humanity.

Djimon Hounsou depicts an unnamed character who’s introduced toward the end of the movie. In other words, viewers should not expect Hounsou to have a lot of screen time in “A Quiet Place Part II.” Scoot McNairy is briefly in the movie as an unnamed man who encounters Regan and Emmett at a marina. All of the actors in “A Quiet Place Part II” do well in their roles, but Simmonds and Murphy have the scenes that carry the most emotional weight.

The visual effects in this sequel are more challenging and frightening, since there are more creature attacks and more people who are killed in “A Quiet Place Part II,” compared to the first “A Quiet Place.” Nothing is too gruesome, but there are enough deaths that these scenes might be too disturbing to viewers who are very young or very sensitive. And it’s easy to keep track of the simultaneous action happening in different locations because the film’s editing won’t let you forget it.

Visually and tonally, “A Quiet Place Part II” has more frantic intensity than “A Quiet Place,” because there’s the added tension of an underage child (Regan) separated from her only living parent while deadly creatures are on the loose. Regan’s independent streak is the biggest personality evolution of the members of the Abbott family in “A Quiet Place Part II.” And based on how “A Quiet Place Part II” ends, Regan is going to be a driving force of future sequels in this franchise.

“A Quiet Place Part II” shows how in this post-apocalyptic world, people can choose to reach out and find strength in helping each other, or people can choose to isolate themselves in a “survival of the fittest” mentality. It’s an obvious metaphor for how people in the real world can respond to global crises. The creature rampages are a big attraction of “A Quiet Place” movies, but what will keep viewers hooked the most is the believable humanity in this survival saga.

Paramount Pictures will release “A Quiet Place Part II” in U.S. cinemas on March 28, 2021.

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