(Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, et al / R / 1hr 49m / A24)
Summary: A radio journalist sets out on a journey of discovery about how kids today think, but ends up on an equal journey of self-discovery when he has to look after his nine-year-old nephew.
Verdict: When critics started praising Joaquin Phoenixís performance in CíMon CíMon as incredibly warm and gentle, I was immediately intrigued, especially since Iíd only seen Phoenix in grittier roles, most recently, Joker.
They were correct.
A comparatively kinder, gentler Phoenix is Johnny, a journalist on a mission to interview kids across the country to see what the present and future look like through their eyes. The assignment hits particularly close to home when he is conscripted to look after his precocious nephew, Jesse (an exceptional Woody Norman), while Jesseís mom deals with some family stuff.
The plot hook is that Johnny knows nothing about raising children and that he soon finds out, and that premise would seem over-done but for the exceptional chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman. Phoenixís Johnny is aloof and unmoored and trying so hard while Normanís Jesse is articulate and mischievous.
They get on each otherís nerves, and often. But they also care deeply for one another, working out their fledgling relationship through Jesseís role-playing as an orphan, the use of Johnnyís tape recorder, and semi-serious conversations that often dissolve into giggles and smiles.
Writer-Director Mike Mills uses real footage of real children being interviewed from Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, and they make great points about relationships with parents, cities, each other, and planet Earth, and it all serves as a great backdrop for watching Johnny and Jesseís adventure together unfold.
And if the naturally-delivered dialogue ó sometimes goofy (ďblah blah blahĒ), sometimes serious (ďwhy donít you and mom act like brother and sister?Ē) ó doesnít wholly establish the metamorphosis of Johnny and Jesseís relationship, Millsí direction and Robbie Ryanís cinematography certainly helps to drive it home.
As the duo explore LA, New York, and New Orleans, the shots are wide as Jesse takes in the world around him, and tight as the two read books together at night or talk or bicker. The choice to shoot the film in black and white continues to add to the emotional weight of a story that is ultimately about people finding their way in the world.
While Joaquin Phoenix is the marquee name, Woody Norman is CíMon CíMonís real standout, perfectly encapsulating the sort of inquisitive kid who prefers the company of adults, who understands (or seems to) so much about everyone elseís feelings but is so out of touch with their own.
But perhaps the most impressive element of Normanís performance is that he delivers all of it in a flawless American accent. It wasnít until a behind-the-scenes video on Facebook that I learned he is actually English. Amazing.
Elsewhere, Gaby Hoffman is perfect as Viv, Johnnyís sister, who struggles to navigate her relationship with not only her brother (itís complicated) and her son, but with her estranged husband (an effective, if not under-utilized Scoot McNairy). A solid eighty percent of her performance is brief cutaways during Johnnyís phone calls to check in, and thatís a shame.
CíMon CíMon is a story that hinges on optimism, on the hope that maybe tomorrow will be better than today, that maybe youíll finally figure out how life works. Or at least the hope that if you donít, youíll be able to enjoy the ride.
Against societyís current backdrop, that sort of message is almost achingly poignant, making CíMon CíMon without question the feel-good flick the world needs right now.
Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte