Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C’mon, C’mon (Tobin Yelland/A24)

The Joaquin Phoenix road movie C’mon C’mon is admirably alive to the pangs and pains we’re all living with, or in some cases barely living through.

C’mon C’mon, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a sad man talking to sad kids about the sad present and the sad future, could be dismissed as a black-and-white journey into miserabilism, or as a road-trip-with-adorable-kid movie, but I don’t think either of these is quite fair. This plotless feature, which is showing at the New York Film Festival ahead of a November 19 theatrical release, is the cinematic equivalent of a confessional novel, an honest attempt to grapple with the elusiveness of happiness. It’s subtle and thoughtful rather than cutesy and contrived.

The writer-director Mike Mills — not the R.E.M. musician but the author of the films Beginners (2010) and Twentieth Century Women (2016) — uses as a starting point a series of unscripted discussions with real young people, mostly adolescents, in Detroit, New York City, and New Orleans. Phoenix plays Johnny, a disheveled and lumpy middle-aged journalist who is traveling around the country on an oral-history project recording these audio interviews. Virtually all of the kids are morose and pessimistic, which Mills sees as merely a frank assessment of the diseased state of things. I’d reply that these interviews, heartbreaking as they are, constitute an excellent reason for adults to indict ourselves and the culture we made. We might ask how it is that, in the richest, healthiest, and freest era in all of human history, we’ve somehow managed to quash the natural ebullience of youth and convince the next generation that everything is headed straight into the vortex.

As if talking to downbeat young people isn’t bad enough, Johnny is burdened with multiple sources of personal sorrow: He is coming out of a breakup, his mother died a year ago after a long battle with dementia, and he is trying to smooth out a bitter series of disagreements with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) about the different ways they approached their mother’s agony. Compounding all of this, Viv is facing a crisis with her musician husband (Scoot McNairy) that requires her to leave her home in Los Angeles and go up to Oakland to try to stabilize him after he suffers some severe bipolar episodes. To help her out, Johnny, who lives in New York City, volunteers to come to L.A. to take care of the couple’s nine-year-old son, Jesse.

The kid, played by Woody Norman, is in a long tradition of movie children who behave like screenwriters’ creations: precocious, serious, surprisingly wise, imaginatively eccentric. In this case, Jesse has a morbid habit of pretending he is an orphan and that the adults around him have suffered through watching their children die. He seems to carry the potential of either dissolving into full-blown mental illness like his father or perhaps finding a measure of equipoise via sensitive parenting.

Thrown off guard by this sweet but wounded child, Johnny starts to reexamine his own life. Soon the questioner is questioning himself and confessing his woes into the microphone. Who is shepherding whom? The kid even turns the tables by interviewing Johnny about his troubles. But none of this is anywhere near as annoying as it sounds. Thanks to the gentle, unforced way Mills directs his script, and Phoenix’s naturalistic acting, the movie never has the feel of Hollywood chintz. Instead, it’s more like an extended therapy session about how to process and manage one’s melancholy. No easy fixes are on offer. The title refers to a (slightly) hopeful injunction from Jesse to face the future with eagerness rather than dread.

Bathing in angst is not everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies, and at times C’mon C’mon comes across like a serotonin-challenged update of A Thousand Clowns, the 1962 play/1965 movie in which a wacky uncle portrayed by Jason Robards introduced his nephew to the comic pleasures of being offbeat in New York City. The two movies might be taught side by side in a college class to illustrate opposing cultural impulses, one of them vibing on 1965 insouciance and the other capturing a very 2021 strain of self-doubt. Still, C’mon C’mon is admirably alive to the pangs and pains we’re all living with, or in some cases barely living through. Somber as it is, I found it touching.

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