Joaquin Phoenix forms a close bond with an early whippersnapper in Mike Mills’ sweet family drama.
KIDs can be safely invoked to say the most sacred things, and in Mike Mills’ latest feature, they indeed do. But they also say everything else – the funniest things, the saddest things, the strangest things, the most wonderful things.
Precocious little Jesse (the cherub Woody Norman) often handles it all at once, his lack of a youthful filter combining with his born sensibility in remarks such as when he informs Uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) that the man is not very good at expressing his emotions.
The deceptive maturity of children, when played against the limits of what an adult can reasonably expect on that front, is a sweet drama in Mills’ study of the unconventional healing of a wounded family. Johnny has built his career around the concept that our offspring know more than we think, even if they don’t have any of their own; Phoenix plays the host of a radio show that travels the country interviewing young people about their lives.
On paper, he’s the perfect temporary guardian for Jesse once Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) needs time to help her bipolar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) get through an episode of instability. But all of Johnny’s curiosity and empathy can’t prepare him for the practical challenges of time management in raising children, or the possibility that Jesse has inherited some of his father’s behaviors.
It fits in with the tradition of movies about closed guys learning to feel innocent left in their care, but Mills sidesteps the mundane by softening the usual Phoenix intensity. He doesn’t start from a place of emotional rigidity, as his handling of subjects clearly shows in his polished and studied recording sessions. Instead, it’s just a little sad and lonely, two inner holes filled with the energizing purpose of surrogacy.
Black and white photography is Mills’ formal choice, its effect is not unpleasant despite the motivations that are difficult to discern. In practice, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s monochrome has a way of making America’s disparate pockets unified, despite the location shooting showcasing their individual beauty.
Jesse has a strange bedtime routine of pretending he’s an orphan, talking about the despicable conditions in his orphanage, and asking if he can’t spend the night in his own bed. It feels weird for Johnny to go out the first time he sees it, and the audience is right there with him, but we both come to understand the reason.
In this film full of people hesitant to open up, acceptance becomes a naked plea that demands to be made every day. Tone never defines the issues in such serious terms, but it is the key to the power of Mills’ cinema: the turns of life come in inactive moments, from discrete sources. All it takes is the willingness to listen.
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