Joaquin Phoenix at Career Best
Mike Mills’ latest film is a balm for these chaotic and heartbreaking times.
“When you think about the future, what do you imagine it will be? Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) interviews children of various origins, races, sexes and geographies as part of an NPR-style podcast set he spearheads. The project is the backbone of the latest tender film from writer-director Mike Mills, Go on! Go on, detailing the complications of intergenerational dynamics in black and white. The answers to his question are very varied. Children talk about fears of climate change and of the land falling into ardent oblivion; they discuss family complications and how adults don’t listen; they touch on loneliness and loss. Their responses give the film an expansive quality – morally, intellectually, emotionally – that is grounded in the single family at its center: Johnny takes care of his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), taking him from his home. in Los Angeles. in the various towns he visits for work, while his novelist sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffman), helps Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy) during an episode of manic bipolar disorder in the Bay Area.
Not much is happening in go! Go on. There are no too big gestures of love. There are no arc monologues. There are no tearful re-evaluations underscored by irrevocable changes in the characters’ lives. As Johnny travels with Jesse and Viv struggles with Paul’s refusal to heal in the linear way people who don’t struggle with mental illness expect, the film finds raw beauty in the wonders and heartaches of daily life. It’s a humble portrayal of a family’s deepening bonds supported by a number of cinematic pleasures – expert sound design and cinematography; touching performances by Norman and Hoffman; and a formidable performance by Joaquin Phoenix, operating at a register he has rarely found before. It’s a career that suits him best – lovable, empathetic, caring.
Black and white cinematography has a multiplicity of effects. He can place the public in another time. He can make a story like a fable. Here, thanks to director of photography Robbie Ryan, everything is softened and inscribed: the deep shadows of a room cut by the light turned on by a child; the velvety darkness of a busy New York night; bodies in motion, overwhelmed with delight and regret. There’s one particular lineup I can’t get out of my head: Viv and Johnny are arguing in a flashback about their deteriorating mother (Deborah Strang) suffering from dementia. He pampers her, yielding to the machinations of a relative who cherished him but never understood his sister, and Viv berates him for it. The door to the room they are arguing in acts as a frame within the frame, and in this second frame we see Viv sitting down, her body guiding our eyes towards Johnny, who is seen in a mirror. Johnny is a reflection while Viv is in the flesh; family struggles are a gallery of mirrors.
Conversations bleed from scene to scene. A stifled phone call opens the world of a flashback; there are transitions from diegetic sound to non-diegetic sound. Jesse, with exuberant curiosity, wears Johnny’s recording gear on his already light frame to document the sounds of the world around him. (As Johnny tells Jesse, the recording allows us to make a mundane thing immortal.) On Venice Beach, ocean waves and wheels hitting the sidewalk fill his ears. In New York, the rumble of the train and the smooth movements of the skateboarders catch his attention. I’m extremely attached to the New Orleans segment of the film that wraps up Johnny and Jesse’s traveling journey. The city is so alive – a parade of costumed people bending the glamor to their liking, the roar of music and voices crackling in the air – I wanted to be transported into the vision of the film, where the hearts of people is open. Jennifer Vecchiarello’s editing is key to the rhythm of the sights and sounds in the film, as in this phone call flashback: Viv is driving in the car when Johnny’s voice rings over the radio, but Jesse, in the backseat, does not. I don’t recognize his uncle’s voice. It is one of many moments that shows us the chasm that Johnny and Viv are trying to bridge.
Mills’ work has always explored generational connections within families – both found and born in – including the 2010s. Beginners and the quasi-masterpiece of 2016 20th century women. Mills understands that for many of us, just thinking about our families can be like pressing on a bruise – or worse, like sticking our fingers into a gaping wound. go! Go on nudges questions like, How to heal in the face of the loss of a parent? How is love worth losing? The film uses Johnny and Jesse’s growing relationship most deeply, as the former desperately tries to connect and the latter pushes him like only a blunt child can. Jesse is precocious, needy to the point of being annoying, a dynamic Norman expertly brings out. (“I mostly hang out with adults,” Jesse tells Johnny.) He is particularly aware of what is going on with his father and fears that such a future may be his fate.
If there’s one criticism I’ll make of Mills’ film, it’s the way Jesse’s dad is treated. I am currently diagnosed with Type II Bipolar. I have always been hesitant to have children for fear of what I would pass on – generational trauma, anger, body image issues, anxiety that puts me on edge in new places, mental illness that has disrupted and reshaped my life. over and over again since I was 13. If you treat mental illness yourself, you start to notice patterns in movies and TV shows that attempt to address it. There are times when the experiences of the person mired in illness are minimized in favor of showing how that person distorts the lives of the people around them. In Go on! Go on, we never hear Paul’s take on his illness, nor even his voice far beyond the moments with Viv in his apartment as he prepares to be admitted to a mental hospital, framed by a phone conversation with Johnny. McNairy’s performance can’t help but come dangerously close to the spectacle without interiority to flesh it out.
But Mills’ story is not about Paul. And it’s not necessarily about Viv, either, although she could easily be the center of her own movie. go! Go on quotes from Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose: “Mothers cannot help but be in touch with the most difficult aspects of all life fully lived. With passion and pleasure, it is the secret knowledge that they share. Why on earth should it be their responsibility to paint things bright, innocent, and safe? And Hoffman, aware of the burdens her character carries, is a strong match for Phoenix in the role – first tentative, then fully open. But even then, the movie is unmistakably Phoenix’s.
The 47-year-old actor, a performer since childhood in the early 1980s, has had an increasingly dynamic career. In the delicate masterpiece of 2012 The master and 2017 is violent You ain’t never really been there, it turned out brutal and broken. In the years 2014 Inherent vice, it reveals the makings of a stoner icon; its performance has a fuzzy and bouncy quality. In others, like 2013 Her, he gives his character an undeniable aspiration. His physique was both guarded and wild. In the years 2019 Joker, which won him an Oscar, Phoenix is at his most ostentatious, his emaciated body acting on lunges and facial expressions. This is the opposite of his performance in Go on! Go on. Here, Phoenix is sweet. It has a warmth that shines from start to finish. As Johnny, Phoenix listens to people and the world around him with intense curiosity. This is where bravery lies in performance: its ability to seemingly fair to be.
go! Go on is a testament to Phoenix’s hard-earned talents and ability to progress as a performer, but it’s reinforced by everything around him. With all its sweetness and sweetness, the story never tilts in the saccharine. It’s the kind of movie you don’t often see in Hollywood – a movie that turns the camera on day-to-day life, how to cope, how to connect, and how to survive until the next day and the next day. next day and the next.