By Lynn Venhaus

A gentle outlook on family dynamics and how adults communicate with children, “C’mon C’mon” takes the road less traveled approach. It has something to say and achieves that with uncommon simplicity and openness.

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist, is traveling across the country to interview children for an assignment. He stops in Detroit and New Orleans and asks kids about what they think about the future – their fears, expectations, and outlook.

While in L.A., he visits his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), and spends time with his precocious 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). He and the deeply inquisitive Jesse bond, and they return to his home in NYC together, at a time where the boy’s devoted mother needs to be with his father Phil (Scoot McNairy), who is not well.

Working in stark contrasting black-and-white with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Oscar nominee for “The Favourite”), writer-director Mike Mills captures distinctive geographic landscapes that allows more focus on intimate interactions in day-to-day living.

This is not an ordinary look at our contemporary world, nor is it typical in its displays of major metropolitan cities. With his keen eye, Mills establishes a rhythm that lets us see things differently, opens the audience to various possibilities – but stays within a narrow framework.

Think of this like chapters in folklore or a fable, sometimes meandering, often illuminating, but the earnest characters are always learning and striving towards understanding.

You get a sense that one day, the relentlessly curious Jesse may write a memoir recalling a most memorable time – a sort of “Travels with My Uncle” from his generational viewpoint. But for now, it’s what appears to be a collection of daily engagements: selecting a toothbrush without audio stimulation, not being able to sleep, mom reading “The Wizard of Oz” to him over the phone and eating a slice of pizza at a neighborhood joint.

The cast excels at its depiction of family ties. In a demonstrative departure, Joaquin Phoenix’s first role since his Oscar-winning turn in the dark and disturbing “Joker” in 2019, finds him softer and squishier, with a scruffy beard and shaggy hair. As Johnny, a bachelor without a significant other or children, Johnny cares about his family and is dedicated to the documentaries he works on but has settled into a mundane routine. Having a child to care for disrupts that — but also provides those teachable moments that propel youth forward. (And also makes a mark on the adult forced to open up).

Phoenix, a new father in real life, and guileless child actor Woody Norman, who has worked in mostly British TV, present an evolving human relationship that unfolds naturally. Norman’s performance is revealing, and Phoenix shows a completely different side of his nature. They are both acting, of course, only it doesn’t look or feel like it.

Gabby Hoffmann, a child actress (“Field of Dreams,” “Sleepless in Seattle”) who grew into a formidable adult artist (Emmy nominated for “Transparent” and “Girls”), plays a responsible adult trying to raise a decent human being, and having all the doubts and anxiety that goes with those choices and decisions. Like the rest of the cast, she gives an engaging lived-in portrayal.

The scenes recording the thoughts of school children provides yet another perspective from diverse voices. Nobody’s life is static, after all, and what they say offers a different slant.

The film’s score is also noteworthy for its interesting mix of synthesizer and classic music pieces. Composers Aaron and Bryce Dessner are known professionally as part of The National, an indie alternative rock band that’s been around for two decades.

Specific in the details he wrote about, Mills has presented an insightful look at life – it may seem slight, and that not much happens, but look closer — you will find pieces of your loved ones and your own journey that will resonate.

Kids are hard work to raise. We don’t match their energy and our senses of wonder and joy are rekindled in their company because they look at life with fresh pairs of eyes. They can be tiring and frustrating – just like we are to them. But they teach us more than we teach them, give us a purpose, and increase our capacity to love ten-fold.

“C’mon C’mon” is not the same-old, same-old. It’s a jagged atmospheric little slice of life that will open your heart and deepen your connection to the people in your world.

“Cmon C’mon” is a 2021 drama written and directed by Mike Mills. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann and Scoot McNairy. It is rated R for language and runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It is in select theaters on Nov. 24 and premiered locally at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Nov. 7. Lynn’s Grade: B+.