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'C'mon C'mon' understands the necessity of recognizing everyone’s humanity

Those of us who care about public radio understand the power of people’s voices. Hearing people tell their own stories and respecting their ability to do that, hearing them in conversation with each other, communicating ideas and hopes and feelings, this all creates an unrivaled level of intimacy and empathy in a world where separation from others is so much more the norm.

Director Mike Mills gets that part of this world as well as I can remember in C’mon C’mon, a movie that’s absorbing and emotionally resonant from the very first seconds, and that’s incredibly smart about all of the different ways we communicate, and the barriers that keep us from real connection.

Joaquin Phoenix is a radio journalist traveling the country talking to kids about their lives and dreams, when one night he gets a call from his sister, who he hasn’t spoken to since their mother died a year before. She asks if he can come to Los Angeles to watch her precocious nine-year-old son while she goes to help the boy’s father, who struggles with mental illness. He agrees, and the rest of the movie is essentially Phoenix and the boy learning about each other, and themselves.

Of course, the plot is something we’ve seen many times before, as their interaction prompts Phoenix to examine and begin to dissolve his own emotional walls, and he helps his nephew become more receptive to his own feelings—there are scenes you’ve seen a million times, including the requisite “let’s scream at the sky” catharsis. But Mills’ direction has an astonishing, disarming ease, even when we’re confronting difficult emotions. We float in his music and sound, and the movie feels like it was shot entirely during that warm, slow glow of dusk, despite the photography being black-and-white.

And most importantly, Mills understands the necessity of recognizing everyone’s humanity, especially the humanity of children. He peppers C’mon C’mon with fragments of Phoenix’s interviews with kids, and through those, we’re able to see their complexities and connect to them. By hearing their own voices, we start to understand them as people.

C’mon C’mon is in theaters.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.