In 2016, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women seemed wildly overlooked, even though he was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay. Here, his follow up has indeed been wildly overlooked. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Joaquin Phoenix is a chronicler of children’s stories, working on a project where he interviews kids in different US cities about their hopes and dreams and fears, the kind of endeavor that would likely end up on NPR. His work is interrupted by a crisis. His sister (Gabby Hoffman) has to take care of her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy), who is off his meds and spiraling, so Phoenix shows up in LA to watch their 9 year old boy (Woody Norman). Phoenix’s duty extends beyond the few days, and soon he is taking the boy with him to various cities for his project. A crash course in parenting, with all its trial and error, misstep and occasional triumph, ensues. Phoenix and Norman establish a relationship from near-scratch, sometimes terrifying, often insightful and ultimately enduring (it is piercing when Norman asks Phoenix if he is going to be like his father), and the bond never comes close to cloying or sentimental. Their union is authentic and fraught with peril. You simultaneously feel for Phoenix, who you can envision just shaking the boy in utter frustration, and Norman, who has his own demons to confront and is forced to confront them away from the natural comfort of his mother, home and routine.
Interspersed in the story are Phoenix’s interviews with the children, snippets of which range from heartbreaking to hopeful, and his phone calls and texts with Hoffman, with whom we quickly realize he has a difficult relationship, stemming from both the death of their mother and his rigid stance on the wisdom of her relationship with McNairy.
But the film is primarily about Phoenix and the boy.
As with most children, there is exhaustion and exasperation, doubly so here given Norman’s issues, and Mills starkly portrays how much fun children are and how much fun they are not. We live in a society that idolizes children. As presented to us, they are mirrors to our better selves, somehow wiser, nearly always charming or charmed, almost as if America has at times become enraptured by tiny Svengalis who made “but what about the children?” our inner Gregorian chant. Listen to an adult speak to their child at the grocery store when they sense you may be in earshot. It often borders on performance, like C.O.P.S. when the fuzz know the camera is running. The parent knows they are being judged via their child and interaction with same and they have put on their best act for the judging.
Mills knows the kid is more than a handful, particularly given the precarious genetic hand given to him, and he allows for the moments where Phoenix, like you, can’t stand Norman because he is a kid. An unformed, insistent, repetitive child.
Our parents knew what the hell they were doing when they sent us to bed at the inception of the party and out of their hair to roam the streets for 12 hour stretches, and you can see Phoenix wordlessly pine for these simpler times only to analyze his reaction in a monologue to his tape recorder.
Mills also makes Norman’s self-awareness a curse and a blessing. A good friend nailed it in a text exchange. “His performance was actually great, and I like that he didn’t try to kill with cuteness. More of a personal reaction…just can’t imagine caring for a kid so annoyingly fluent in therapeutic language.”
The film is graceful, multi-faceted and subtly moving and the performances are adept and grounded across the board. In particular, Hoffman and Phoenix establish a patter that any sibling will recognize as true.
Put the phone down and really take it in. Easy top 5 for 2021 and currently streaming for less than $5.