Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
USA, 2021. A24, Be Funny When You Can. Screenplay by Mike Mills. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Chelsea Barnard, Andrea Longacre-White, Lila Yacoub. Music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner. Production Design by Katie Byron. Costume Design by Katina Danabassis. Film Editing by Jennifer Vecchiarello.
Joaquin Phoenix plays an NPR-style radio host whose current project involves travelling around the country and questioning young people about their opinions, their hopes and their fears. His job is meant to explore the station of the nation, but turns out to be the grace note commenting on his own personal life when he reconnects with his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) a year after the care of their now deceased mother drove them apart; she tells him that she needs to go to Oakland to see about her estranged, emotionally unstable husband (Scoot McNairy) and he, in an effort to begin repairing their relationship, offers to look after her nine year-old son (Woody Norman) while she’s gone. Flying out to Los Angeles and moving into her home, Phoenix is charmed by this youngster and also terrified of screwing up the gig, receiving advice from his sister every night on the phone while she, an instinctive nurturer unable to decide where to focus her energy, also has to juggle trying to convince her manic husband to go for treatment into the mix (and, miraculously, the sympathy that the film offers her character is never patronizing). When Phoenix’s job requires his returning to the east coast and Hoffmann still needs time to get her situation in order, he takes the kid with him and they explore New York together, recording the wild and wonderful sounds of the Big Apple before once again hitting the road and completing their journey in New Orleans.
Mike Mills builds on the touching emotional journey of 20th Century Women with this beautiful, perpetually spontaneous work of wonder that ties loosely to his previous film (the character of the mother) but ventures in a new direction of subdued emotional sensitivity. The scenes between Phoenix, who wisely chooses a role that brings out a genuine warmth after his success in Joker, and Norman, who never comes across as a contrived child star, have a natural, improvisational rhythm that manages to be sweet and wise without ever feeling intentionally poignant. Huge, gorgeous images of cityscapes reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work on Manhattan or photographers like Vivian Maier are captured in a soft, muted black and white tone that adds to the texture of sympathy that the film so elegantly infuses in the journey that both its main characters must go on, learning to face their fears of expressing their feelings about the devastations they have survived. Phoenix’s charisma carries the piece in tandem with the young newcomer, but the film would be so much less without the electricity of what Hoffman and a very exciting McNairy contribute, the reality of their situation giving stakes to the turmoil that the young protagonist is taking out on his bewildered but, much to the audience’s satisfaction, increasingly capable uncle. It’s a film that really gets at the heart of what it is trying to capture, and does so without ever seeming like it’s trying, which might be its most miraculous attribute.