Film reviews: C'mon C'mon | The Hand of God | Boxing Day

Playing an emotionally stunted radio host forced to look after a troubled nine-year-old boy, Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliantly nuanced performance in C’mon C’mon, writes Alistair Harkness

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C'mon C'mon PIC: Tobin Yelland/A24 Fi

C’mon C’mon (15) *****

The Hand of God (15) ****

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Boxing Day (12A) **

Having played a series of misfits, loners and psychotic oddballs in recent years, Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates his remarkable range with a role as a regular guy in C’mon C’mon that’s as good as anything he’s done. He plays Johnny, a New York radio producer working on a This American Life-style documentary series that requires him to travel the country interviewing kids about their hopes, dreams and fears for the future. Johnny’s an attentive, sensitive broadcaster, with a keen understanding of human nature, but he’s got a lot of personal baggage too, mostly related to his estranged sister Viv (the terrific Gabby Hoffman), whom he spontaneously calls on the anniversary of their mother’s death. Soon afterwards, he finds himself volunteering to look after his nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) as Viv deals with a crisis involving Jesse’s bipolar father (Scoot McNairy).

On paper that’s quite a melodramatic set-up, but writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) has quietly established himself as one of American cinema’s foremost chroniclers of family life and his approach here is nuanced and truthful. Shot in lustrous black-and-white, what follows is partly an elegy for the kind of youthful honesty and openness that gets too easily corrupted by the complex systems of denial we develop as adults. But more simply the film’s monochrome look speaks to the many grey areas that exist when it comes to dealing with family: nothing’s really black-and-white and you can never really know everything about the people to whom you’re supposed to be closest. Mills also adds to the texture of his characters’ inner lives by quoting from books and essays and footnoting his sources on screen – a technique that taps into the idea that, in lieu of a definitive parenting manual, most families are really all just winging it, stitching together a patchwork quilt of random advice on the fly in the vague hope that it will be enough to hold things together from one day to the next.

Mills presents all this with unusual depth for a movie that’s also essentially about a cute kid bonding with an emotionally stunted adult. Yet he scrupulously avoids all the clichés and traps of this mini genre by approaching it with unflinching honesty, humour and a refusal to serve up easily resolved emotional problems. It helps too that in Norman – who shares top-billing with Phoenix and Hoffman – he’s blessed with a child actor able to exist in the moment. Jesse isn’t an easy kid; he’s smart and sweet, but he’s also wracked with insecurities that manifest themselves in insane bedtime routines and irrational bids for autonomy that freak Johnny out, but also force Johnny to start putting his own ego aside and have a little more empathy for Viv’s situation. Phoenix, a former child actor himself, creates a believable bond with Norman that doesn’t let either character off the hook, but never slips into sentimentality either. Instead it taps into something interesting about the way children rely on the grown-ups in their lives to not just keep them safe but also to remember their own story for them, giving them a sense of themselves long after the details of these formative years have faded from their own rapidly developing minds. What a film.

Opening with an epic overhead shot over the Bay of Naples followed by a surreal scene involving a buxom woman kissing a dwarf while being groped by the patron saint of the city, Paulo Sorrentino’s latest film, The Hand of God, wastes no time channeling the spirit of Federico Fellini. That’s appropriate for this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film. Dramatising Sorrentino’s own tragedy-strewn adolescence in high style, it turns that out a brief encounter with the 8 1/2 maestro is what sets his hitherto football-obsessed alter-ego, Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), on his path to becoming a director – though not before Fabietto’s proximity to the late Argentinian footballing legend Diego Maradona saves his life in an unexpected way. Maradona’s divine intervention comes when he arrives in Italy to play for Naples. There’s no way Fabietto is going to miss him play, but this simple act of teenage devotion changes the course of his life and he gradually becomes obsessed with the escapism afforded by filmmaking. Sorrentino has always been a maximalist director and what he presents here is a kind of fever dream of adolescence filtered through the decadent perspective of a filmmaker with a surfeit of style and a desire to throw everything at this period of his life to show how the worst moment in his childhood also set his imagination free. It’s a wild ride, funny and unexpected, with a chaotic cast of larger-than-life characters and an absorbing turn from the Timothée Chalamet-esque Scotti at its core. Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo co-stars.

Filippo Scotti in The hand of God PIC: Gianni Fiorito

The worst excesses of Richard Curtis fuel Boxing Day, an unapologetically sentimental rom-com rendered all but unwatchable by an abundance of Christmas cringe and thinly conceived characters. Writer/director/star Aml Ameen takes the lead as Melvin, a Los Angeles-based novelist returning to London for the first time in two years to see his formerly close-knit family. Done on the cheap, the film has none of the gloss required to sell us on a preposterous set-up involving internationally famous pop stars, glamorous Hollywood careers and various amorous entanglements. The gags are pretty tired too.

C’mon C’mon and Boxing Day are in cinemas from Friday; Hand of God is on selected release from Friday and streams on Netflix from 15 December

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