One of the finest actors of his generation is kept on his toes by a child as he plays a character who is being kept on his toes by child. C’mon C’mon stars Joaquin Phoenix as a rumpled radio journalist and Woody Norman as his precocious a nine-year-old nephew. Such is Phoenix’s casual brilliance and Norman’s complete lack of artifice that it’s impossible to choose between the veteran and the relative newcomer.

Phoenix is Johnny, who’s interviewing children across America about their hopes and dreams. Norman is Jesse, who erases the line between documentary and reality for Johnny.

The 2021 production has finally arrived in India on the BookMyShow Stream platform. C’mon C’mon has been shot in lustrous black-and-white by Robbie Ryan, whose artistry can also be seen in American Honey (on Netflix), The Favourite (on Disney+ Hotstar) and Andrew Dominik’s Nick Cave documentary This Much I Know to be True (on MUBI).

Written and directed by Mike Mills (20th Century Woman), C’mon C’mon plays out as part meditation on parenthood and part therapy session. Johnny, bruised from a failed relationship and emotionally distant from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), has to take charge of Viv’s son Jesse when her husband faces a crisis.

The angelic-looking Jesse packs into his nine-year mind a vivid imagination and a piercing sensitivity for adult affairs. He isn’t the only one forced to have grown up too soon. Johnny’s subjects share their anxieties about contemporary America, touching on race, climate change and fragile social ties.

But there are times when Jesse is only a boy, standing before Johnny and telling him to tolerate him. Jesse’s petulant outbursts annoy Johnny but move him to better understand Viv’s maternal instincts, while also bridging the gap between his professional and personal selves.

Mike Mills brings a deceptively gentle touch to an emotionally weighty film. Mills’s skill with observational cinema and immense feeling for the emotional graph of his characters is most strikingly on display in the scenes involving Johnny and Jesse.

The tremendous performances by Phoenix and Norman create an illusion of improvisation in even scripted scenes. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic and always affecting, C’mon C’mon comes vividly alive when Johnny is arguing with Jesse, discussing life and death, or simply shooting the breeze.

C’mon C’mon (2021).