Producers: Chelsea Barnard, Lila Yacoub and Andrea Longacre-White   Director: Mike Mills   Screenplay: Mike Mills   Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White, Deborah Strang and Sunni Patterson   Distributor: A24 Films

Grade: B+

The premise of a commitment-averse man whose values are fundamentally altered by unexpectedly having to take care of a child is hardly a new one.  But writer-director Mike Mills, star Joaquin Phoenix and an extraordinary newcomer named Woody Norman give the venerable recipe some new life in “C’mon, C’mon.”

Phoenix is Johnny, a NYC-based radio reporter working on a series about kids’ views of the world, which involves interviewing young subjects about their hopes, fears and opinions about how things could be made better.  Outside of work he lives a solitary, sterile life, with little connection to others now that his girlfriend has dumped him.

He’s also estranged from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) as a result of their disagreement over how to deal with their late mother’s dementia, as well as his past failure to understand that Viv’s husband Paul (Scott McNairy) has serious mental problems as well.

Now Paul has had a relapse that requires extended treatment, and Viv asks Johnny for a favor.  Could he come to Los Angeles and stay with her son Jesse (Norman) while she goes to be with Paul while he’s in therapy in Oakland? 

Johnny agrees, of course, and after getting acquainted with the kid makes arrangements to take him back to New York with him when Paul’s stay in therapy is extended; later when his work demands a trip to New Orleans, the boy will go with him there as well.

That’s the story arc of the film and it’s a simple one; but of course its charm and pathos lie in the details and the performances.  Phoenix, who has often delivered mannered or outsized turns, is at his most natural and laid-back here, looking slouchy, unkempt and real.  Hoffmann too exudes genuineness as a harried but loving wife and mother who reaches out, not without some hesitancy to a brother who’s not exactly prepared to take on the responsibility of taking on Jesse, but it the only person she can turn to.

And Jesse is quite a bit of a handful.  It goes without saying that he’ll be precocious—that’s a given in stories like this.  But as occasional flashbacks show, his precociousness is explicable not merely because of natural intelligence but his upbringing—his parents always encouraged him to be outspokenly inquisitive, imaginative and expressive (perhaps, some might argue, a bit too much so).  And yet he can revert abruptly to being childlike—secretive, foolish, obstinate, impossible.  During rough patch, Viv tells Johnny that he’s just “a little person,” to be treated as such—honestly and without condescension though with a recognition of his years.

That rough patch is one of several Mills writes into the script—Jesse disappears during a visit to a store, causing Johnny to flake out and berate him; Jesse begs to be sent back to California, only to change his mind on the cab ride to the airport and lock himself in a convenience store restroom—and the character might easily have become obnoxious in his combination of cleverness and demandingness.  The fact that he doesn’t is due to Norman’s naturalness and fuzzy-haired charm, and to Phoenix’s ability to build a credible rapport with him.  It’s hard to predict whether Norman’s personality will serve him as well in other roles, but one hopes to see him again in a part he’s as good in as this one.

The believability of the Johnny-Jesse story is all the more impressive in that it’s competing with inserts showing Johnny’s interviews with the youngsters that he and the other members of his team (Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White) are recording for their series.  Those documentary-style excerpts with real interviewees, which reflect Johnny’s ease in drawing out children, mirror his developing relationship with his nephew, and don’t make it feel false.  That’s quite an accomplishment.

The texture of “C’mon, C’mon” keeps that documentary look throughout.  Katie Byron’s rough-hewn production design and Katina Danabassis’ costumes work together with Robbie Ryan’s gritty, often jittery but always carefully composed black-and-white camerawork to achieve a naturalistic effect, accentuated by Jennifer Vecchiarello’s calculatedly jumpy editing.  Nor is the score by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner allowed to smooth out the emotional tone. 

This is a film that proves that even a well-worn premise can, if treated with imagination and sensitivity—and blessed by some very good fortune in the casting process—be made vibrant and resonant again.