Joaquin Phoenix shines in ‘C’mon C’mon’, a touching family drama about human imperfection – and one precocious kid

Good together: Woody Norman and Joaquin Phoenix in ‘C’mon C’mon’.

C’MON C’MON ***1/2 (110 minutes) M
As with any precocious kid, the one at the heart of the heartfelt, free-wheeling family relationship drama C’mon C’mon regularly gets a good talking to. The thing with this kid is, he returns serve – and then some.

The kid at issue is nine-year old Jesse (Woody Norman in a remarkable performance) who is being looked after by his uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) while his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) leaves to care for her ailing husband Paul (Scoot McNairy).

There’s tension everywhere. Viv and Johnny haven’t properly reconciled after the passing of their mum. She’s also unable to fully connect with Jesse, a high-spirited problem child with an inquisitive nature that keeps trying to pry open the backstory of his secretive uncle.

When Viv’s return to their Detroit home is delayed, Johnny, a radio reporter interviewing kids about the future, takes Jesse to New York, where the tentative bond they began forming gets tested as their exchanges enrich their understanding of each other.

The spark between uncle and nephew comes about by writer/director Mike Mills insisting, through some wonderfully sculpted dialogue exchanges, that grown-ups don’t have all the answers, whether they’re speaking to each other or to a child.

It’s a very smooth, well-thought through conceit to have Johnny asking into the lives of children, yet bristle when the tables are turned as Jesse poses questions to him.

And likeable though he is, Jesse is a brat with a manipulative edge, causing Johnny to panic when he suddenly goes missing while shopping.

Shot in black-and-white, there’s not a lot going on plot-wise as the delicate direction by Mills keeps us entranced with the inter-generational interplay. As the two grow close he seems to be stressing, however implicitly, that the idea of a generation gap is an ever-diminishing phenomenon, and probably an artificial one.

As emotionally oblique as ever, Joaquin Phoenix hits home opposite top child actor Woody Norman, whose debut film this is.

Peppered with many touching moments, C’mon C’mon is a warm, finely knit sketching of human imperfections that ultimately, and in a manner not at all quiet, champions one of the most important things you can teach a child, that it is OK to be sad.

It’s a lesson Lisa Simpson taught all those decades ago (Season 6; episode 22) during that fondly regarded era when The Simpsons came from the heart and cared about character.

And it’s one that, thankfully, has renewed traction today.