Joaquin Phoenix at Career Best

Mike Mills’ latest film is a balm for these chaotic and heartbreaking times.
Photo: A24

“When you think about the future, what do you imagine it to be?” Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) asks kids of various backgrounds, races, genders, and geographic origins as part of an obscurely defined NPR-style podcast package that he spearheads. The project is the backbone of screenwriter / director Mike Mills’ latest sweet film, Go Go, detailing the complications of intergenerational dynamics in black and white. The answers to your question run the gamut. Children talk about the fears of climate change and the earth’s fall into fiery oblivion; they discuss family complications and the ways adults don’t listen; they touch loneliness and loss. His responses give the film an expansive moral, intellectual and emotional quality, which draws on the unique family at its center: Johnny cares for his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), driving him from their home in Los Angeles. . to the different cities 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 happens in go Go. There are no great gestures of love. There are no archmonologists. There are no tearful reassessments underscored by irrevocable changes in the characters’ lives. As Johnny travels with Jesse in tow and Viv grapples with Paul’s refusal to heal in the linear way that people who don’t struggle with mental illness expect, the film finds a stark beauty in the wonders and heartbreaks of everyday life. It’s a humble portrait of a family’s deepening connections backed by a host of cinematic pleasures: expert cinematography and sound design; heartwarming performances by Norman and Hoffman; and a tremendous performance from Joaquin Phoenix, operating in a record that has rarely been found before. It’s the best career for him: charming, empathetic, human.

Black and white cinematography has a multiplicity of effects. You can place the audiences at another time. It can turn a story into a fable. Here, thanks to director of photography Robbie Ryan, everything is softened and consecrated: the deep shadows of a bedroom cut by the light turned on by a child; the velvety darkness of a bustling New York night; bodies in motion, flooded with pleasure and sorrow. There is one particular composition I can’t get out of my head: Viv and Johnny are in hindsight arguing about their deteriorating mother (Deborah Strang) plagued by dementia. He pampers her, yielding to the machinations of a father who appreciated him but never understood his sister, and Viv admonishes him for it. The door to the room they are arguing in acts as a frame within a frame, and within that second frame, we see Viv sitting, her body guiding our eyes towards Johnny, who sees himself in a mirror. Johnny is a reflection, while Viv is in the flesh; Family struggles are a hall of mirrors.

Conversations bleed from scene to scene. A silent phone call opens the world of a flashback; there are transitions from diegetic to non-diegetic sound. Jesse, with exuberant curiosity, uses Johnny’s recording equipment on his already slim body to document the noises of the world around him. (As Johnny tells Jesse, recording allows us to make something mundane immortal.) At Venice Beach, ocean waves and wheels hitting the pavement fill your ears. In New York City, the roar of the train and the skilful movements of the skaters capture your attention. I am extremely partial to the segment of the New Orleans movie that closes Johnny and Jesse’s peripatetic journey. The city feels so alive, a parade of costumed people bending the glamor to their will, the sound of music and voices crackling in the air, yearning to be transported to the movie’s vision of everything, where the hearts of the people are open. Jennifer Vecchiarello’s editing is key to the pacing of the film’s sights and sounds, like in that silent phone call flashback: Viv is driving in the car when Johnny’s voice comes on on the radio, but Jesse, on the backseat, it doesn’t. I recognize your uncle’s voice. It is one moment among many that leads us to the abyss that Johnny and Viv are trying to bridge.

Mills’ work has always explored generational connections within families, both found and born, including those of 2010. Beginners and the almost masterpiece of 2016 20th century women. Mills understands that for many of us, just thinking about our family can be like pressing on a bruise or, worse, like sticking our fingers into an open wound. go Go prompts questions like, How do we heal from the loss of a parent? How is love worth the pain of losing it? The movie uses the growing relationship between Johnny and Jesse more deeply, as the former desperately tries to connect and the latter pushes him in the way that only a straight kid can. Jesse is precocious, needy to the point of annoying, a dynamic Norman expertly brings out. (“Most of the time I hang out with adults,” Jesse tells Johnny.) In particular, he is aware of what is going on with his father and worries that that future may be his destiny.

If there is one criticism I will make of Mills’ film, it is how Jesse’s father is treated. I am currently diagnosed as type II bipolar. I have always been insecure about having children for fear of what it might pass on: generational trauma, anger, body image issues, an anxiety that puts me on the edge in new places, the mental illness that has disrupted and reshaped my life. over and over again since I was 13 years old. If you are dealing with mental illness yourself, you start to notice some patterns in movies and TV shows that try to address it. There are times when the experiences of the person involved in an illness are minimized in favor of showing how that person distorts the lives of the people around them. On Go Go, We never get to hear Paul’s own perspective on his illness, we don’t even hear his voice beyond the moments with Viv in her apartment as she prepares for admission to a psychiatric hospital, framed by a phone conversation with Johnny. McNairy’s performance can’t help but lean dangerously close to the show without the interiority to develop it.

But the Mills story is not about Paul. And it’s not necessarily about Viv, either, though it could easily be the focus of her own movie. go Go appointments of Mothers: Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose: “Mothers cannot avoid being in touch with the most difficult aspects of a fulfilling life. Along with passion and pleasure, it is the secret knowledge that they share. Why the hell should it be their job to paint bright, innocent, safe things? “And Hoffman, aware of the burdens his character carries, is a great rival to Phoenix on paper, tentative at first, then wide open. But even then, the movie is undeniably Phoenix’s.

The 47-year-old actor, who has been an actor since childhood in the early 1980s, has had an increasingly dynamic career. In the complicated masterpiece of 2012 Teacher and 2017 is violent You were never really here, has proven to be brutal and broken. In 2014 Inherent vice, reveals the characteristics of a stoner icon; his performance has a nebulous and lively quality. In others, like 2013 She, gives his character an undeniable longing. His physique has been both guarded and wild. In 2019 jester, which earned him an Oscar, Phoenix is ​​more ostentatious, his gaunt body depicting sharp movements and facial expressions. It is the polar opposite of his performance in Go Go. Here, Phoenix is ​​smooth. It has a warmth that shines through from start to finish. Like Johnny, Phoenix listens to people and the world around him with great curiosity. This is where bravery in acting lies: your ability to seemingly be.

go Go It’s a testament to Phoenix’s hard-earned talents and ability to level up as a performer, but it’s reinforced by everything around him. In all its softness and sweetness, the story never becomes saccharine. It’s the kind of movie we don’t see often in Hollywood – one that focuses the camera on everyday life, on getting by, connecting, and surviving until the next day and the next and the next.

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