Joaquin Phoenix has certainly had one of cinema’s more interesting and varied careers. Even in just the last few years he has probably taken on a more diverse group of roles than most of his contemporaries, and pretty much nailed all of them. So it’s not a surprise to see him give an utterly charming performance in the latest from writer / director Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners).
Here, Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist who, along with his producing partners is visiting various cities across the country to interview children about their experiences and thoughts on the future. One day he receives a phone call from his somewhat estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), who needs someone to watch her son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she travels to help her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) who is having issues related to his bipolar disorder. Johnny agrees and winds up bonding with his very unusual nephew over the next few weeks as he winds up bringing the boy with him to New York and then New Orleans.
This is a slow, thoughtful movie, that borders on being a tone poem. The plot is whisper thin but handled well, even if sometimes Viv’s decision making feels like it is motivated by the need to get characters where the filmmaker wants them rather than any rational thought process. The main cast are all excellent, with Phoenix giving an especially touching performance and young Woody Norman looking likely to have a long career going forward.
While there are many moments of levity throughout, there is a somber tone to the movie, aided by the smart classical music selections in the soundtrack and the strikingly beautiful black and white cinematography. The footage of the interviews placed within the story, which are completely unscripted and genuine, manages to add both some lightness and additional weight to the story, which touches on family, love, aging, loneliness, obligation, death, inheritance, and how each of those things can affect the people experiencing them. Despite the seriousness of it all though, it’s a movie that leaves the viewer feeling at least a little uplifted and an experience that offers up much to ponder. ★★★★★
Rated R for language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor