Scene at Chi Film Fest: ‘C’mon C’mon,’ ‘The Worst Person in the World’

Another day, another 1,000 words or so about the Chicago International Film Festival.

Before I dive into the films themselves, I want to acknowledge just how special these moviegoing experiences were for me. I saw “The Worst Person in the World,” for example, at a press-only screening. I felt like a real Roger Ebert — the only thing tipping me off to my amateurism was my being the youngest person in the audience by a decade.

I saw “C’mon C’mon,” meanwhile, at the historic Music Box Theater in Wrigleyville. It was my first time going, and it was just a treat. From the flickering marquee to the towering neon sign outside, I felt like I was in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or something. The inside of the theater was equally cool — it came complete with an organ once used to accompany silent films, and just before show time we got a live demonstration. I’m excited to return to the Music Box on Thursday.

That’s enough preamble. On to the films!

“C’mon C’mon”

The centerpiece of this year’s festival is A24’s “C’mon C’mon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Mike Mills. Mills — who recorded an exclusive video introduction for the film for its Chicago premiere — directed his first feature in 2005, but his career really took off with “Beginners” in 2010 and “20th Century Women” in 2016. 

“Beginners” was inspired by Mills’ father (played by the late Christopher Plummer, who won his only Academy Award for his portrayal), while “20th Century Women” paid tribute to Mills’ mother and sister. “C’mon C’mon,” in turn, was informed by Mills’ young son. 

The film follows Johnny (Phoenix), a radio journalist currently reporting a story about how children conceive their futures — their dreams, their fears and generally, their feelings. His interviews are sprinkled throughout the film, and the earnestness and thoughtfulness of these children — real children, mind you, providing unscripted responses — prove to be the highlight of the movie. Mills clearly respects them as complex and intelligent young people, itself a reflection of his greatest strength as a storyteller: his deep reservoir of empathy. 

Johnny has a sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman) and a nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Jesse’s father, Paul, suffers from bipolar disorder, and his perennial hospitalizations have left him a stranger in Jesse’s life. When Viv is forced to tend to Paul, Johnny is forced to care for Jesse. What results is a quasi-road trip movie, with Jesse accompanying Johnny as he travels the country and interviews kids.

As is the case across Mills’ filmography, “C’mon C’mon” is frequently funny and ultimately poignant. The black-and-white cinematography is sterling, while the orchestral soundtrack is as affecting as ever. Phoenix (fresh off an Oscar for “Joker”) plays a normal, regular guy for a change, and the result is one of his most subtle and satisfying turns in years. Meanwhile, Norman as his young scene partner gives one of the most natural child performances I think I’ve ever seen.

That being said, the film failed to connect with me quite like “Beginners” and “20th Century Women” before it. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that (to my knowledge) I do not have a child; Mills’ previous films (and their corresponding subjects) provided clearer points of entry for me personally. But formally, the film is a quiet departure. The story circles and meanders in a way less satisfying than Mills’ previous work, while a lot of his twee signatures — non-diegetic voice-over, quirky use of stock images and video — are absent. Still, the ending choked me up, so who am I to judge? 7/10

“The Worst Person in the World”

Playing in the International Competition (in person and online) is “The Worst Person in the World,” the latest from Norwegian director Joachim Trier. The film serves as the final entry in Trier’s “Oslo trilogy” — preceded by his debut feature “Reprise” and the acclaimed “Oslo, August 31” — all of which are loosely connected in setting and theme. More specifically, they’re about the millennial milieu: the thrill of being young and of a city, and the melancholy of feeling like that time is slipping away.

Whereas “Oslo, August 31” broached this topic with a sober tone — fitting for a film whose protagonist was recovering from addiction — “The Worst Person in the World” swings in the opposite direction. It’s actually a romantic comedy, oft-compared to the early work of Greta Gerwig. And it’s true that if you liked “Frances Ha,” you’ll probably like “The Worst Person” just as much. But let’s not be reductive: “The Worst Person” is something special.

The film follows Julie (Renate Reinsve, Best Actress at Cannes), a woman on the brink of 30 with no idea what she wants. In a frenetic prologue complete with third-person narration, we watch Julie drop out of med school to pursue psychology, only to drop out of psychology to become a photographer. Sprinkled throughout this montage are the SparkNotes of multiple romantic and sexual relationships. We start to get a sense of who she is — intelligent and independent, impulsive and impatient, intimate but always at a distance.

Subtitled “Julie (in 12 chapters),” the film is structured as a dozen interrelated vignettes chronicling the trials and tribulations of our eponymous heroine. It rests entirely on Renate Reinsve’s shoulders, and she is more than up to the challenge. In her first leading role, Reinsve is radiant; she embraces all of Julie’s contradictions and embodies the restlessness at the center of the story. Refreshingly, “The Worst Person” doesn’t really condemn Julie for her indecision. Not only does it accept it, but it even seems to celebrate it — in fact, the press notes describe the film as an “anthem” to uncertainty.

Moreover, this restlessness is reflected in the direction. Trier is constantly subverting the genre’s expectations and pushing the limits of his realism. In one spectacular sequence, Julie finds that time is frozen all over Oslo, and she runs through the streets living a day she can only imagine. Supporting turns from Herbert Nordrum and Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie as Julie’s love interests help anchor the film, especially in the final chapters as it transforms into something more serious. Without spoiling anything, I think Julie remains uncommitted to the end — if anything, she learns only to commit to herself. Truly the joy of “The Worst Person in the World” is coming to the understanding that Julie may, in fact, be the opposite. 9/10

That’s enough words for one day. Scene will be back with even more CIFF coverage when Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” debuts — at which point the knighted thespian (and Gilderoy Lockhart!) will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

I’ll see you at the movies!

This article was originally published on October 20, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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