Two coming-of-age films, both filmed in black and white, both released in time for awards season. Strap in, my friends, this calls for a Double Feature!
Belfast comes to us from writer/director/producer Kenneth Branagh, a semi-autobiographical portrayal of his own childhood in Northern Ireland back in 1969. Specifically, the film is heavily preoccupied with the notion of growing up in “The Troubles”, back when Protestants were fire-bombing Catholic families with the intention of pushing Catholics out of Belfast.
Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill) is a young boy in a Belfast family of Protestants, but the family is still concerned about their beloved Catholic neighbors and there’s reason to believe the Protestant gangs might come to see them as “against us”. However, Buddy’s father (played by Jamie Dornan) is a carpenter who often works in England, and there’s a distinct possibility that he might be able to get the family to safer ground in some other part of the world.
Of course that comes with the significant downside that the family would have to leave the only home they’ve ever known, and the neighbors who all know and love each other. Not that their sense of community and family matters all that much when the taxman is breathing down their necks, there’s a constant looming threat of arson and/or death, and the whole neighborhood is tearing itself apart along ideological lines. There’s also the matter of the national army and law enforcement, whose efforts at protecting Belfast look strangely like an oppressive military occupation.
Oh, and there’s the tiny little detail that their new home might not even be safer, given how Irish immigrants have typically been received in other parts of the world. (*ahem*)
The premise to C’mon C’mon will take a bit more explaining. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist on a massive nationwide project that involves interviewing various kids and teenagers regarding the state of the world, their anxieties for the future, and so on. Additionally, Johnny’s mother passed away recently, causing a rift between him and his sister (Viv, played by Gaby Hoffman).
Our plot begins when Viv calls Johnny back to her home in the Los Angeles area. Long story short, Viv’s husband (Paul, played by Scoot McNairy) was working a job in another city until he suffered some kind of psychotic break. So now Viv has to go deal with that mess, leaving her nine-year-old son (Jesse, played by Woody Norman) in the care of Uncle Johnny. As Paul’s mental/physical health keeps fluctuating, Jesse is left with Johnny for a longer period of time, until Johnny has to get back to work touring the country for his radio journalism piece, taking Jesse along with him. Hilarity ensues.
The kicker here is that Jesse… well, I’m not 100 percent sure he’s on the autism spectrum, but there’s definitely something off about this kid. And given how his father turned out, there’s a very real possibility that this is some kind of genetic thing. The point is, Jesse’s a handful. He’s got all these weird habits and peculiar ways of expressing himself. But the more time Johnny spends with his nephew, the more he starts to pick up that there’s a method to the madness.
It bears remembering that Johnny and his colleagues go through the whole picture asking kids what they think about the future, their hopes and dreams, what they think about the adults running the planet, etc. As the movie unfolds and we hear from more kids, we start to see that children are indeed far more intelligent and perceptive than they’re often given credit for, they simply don’t know how to express their thoughts and feelings in a detailed or articulate way. This is most capably demonstrated in the Johnny/Jesse dynamic, as each of them gradually learn how to communicate in terms that the other will understand.
Both movies are clearly and explicitly about the various ways that adults can fuck up children, even and especially with the best intentions toward them. In both films, the young protagonist feels entirely helpless because they can’t do a thing about all the drama surrounding their parent figures. (In fact, Buddy and Jesse both have to deal with biological fathers who are absent for long stretches of time.) But both films approach the concept from totally different angles.
Belfast stays tightly focused on the perspective of our ten-year-old protagonist. Hell, most of the characters don’t even get names aside from their relationship to Buddy (“Ma”, “Pa”, “Granny”, etc.). Buddy’s just a kid who just wants to do well in school, impress his crush, and generally have a well-adjusted childhood. That turns out to be difficult when he’s growing up in a goddamn DMZ.
Buddy doesn’t always know what’s going on with regards to his family’s finances and dilemmas about moving. He has a rough time figuring right from wrong when his neighbors are all at each other’s throats over which gods and preachers and scriptures they should be listening to. How can any kid have a decent childhood in the face of all this bloody and complicated shit he doesn’t understand? More importantly, what are his parents going to do about it?
Belfast explores Buddy’s mental state and development by putting us squarely in his headspace from start to finish. By contrast, C’mon C’mon shows Jesse’s development through his relationship and interplay with Johnny. In fact, for all the film’s lip service to the strength of family and community in Belfast, I don’t think Buddy has a single relationship with any other character as potent or well-performed as the Jesse/Johnny relationship (except maybe Buddy’s interplay with his grandfather, played by Ciaran Hinds).
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman have such effortless chemistry that every line between them is positively crackling. Every second they have onscreen together tells me something new about both of these characters. It also helps that Mike Mills is an outrageously underrated filmmaker with such criminally underappreciated gems as Beginners and 20th Century Women. Mills has already proven himself more than capable of delivering family dramatic comedies with heart in abundance, and he brings more of the same in spades here. Though Branagh is a perfectly capable journeyman director, he doesn’t specialize in that kind of interplay like Mills does.
(Also, much as I hate to say it, the impenetrably thick Irish accents do present a slight language stumbling block that C’mon doesn’t have.)
A lot of that comes from the fact that while both films are all about young characters talking about their emotions and learning how to sort through their feelings, the two films take place fifty years apart and that makes a huge difference. Belfast takes place in a time when boys and men were expected to bottle up their emotions and work through the pain, to say nothing of attitudes towards girls and women that might be considered comically ignorant at best by today’s standards.
Compare that to C’mon, in which these 21st century characters lean on more modern psychology. (No joke, there’s a scene in which Johnny attempts to resolve a conflict by reading off a script he found online.) The characters are all much more open and honest about their feelings, and more effective about getting others to open up about their feelings. It’s all done in a way that makes for deeper and more compelling character drama, especially when the characters are faced with the knowledge that they fucked up.
Case in point: There’s one scene late in the movie in which Johnny and Jesse take turns literally screaming out their pain, reassuring each other that it’s okay to feel sad and terrible in that particular scenario. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, and it would never ever happen in Buddy’s family.
It changes everything that Mills made the characters his first priority, while Branagh’s primary allegiance is to the time and place of the setting. Before anything else, Branagh made a love letter to Belfast and a heartfelt tribute to all those who lived through The Troubles. It’s elegant and beautifully made, but I’m sorry, I found the story set in modern-day USA to be more accessible.
Another slight problem is that Belfast tends to drag and meander quite a bit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because what could we expect when we’re seeing the whole world from a child’s perspective? Moreover, as time passes and the citizens of Belfast get increasingly lax in their precautions against another raid, it leads to a kind of underlying tension with the ongoing question of when the next strike will come to catch this neighborhood unawares.
I might add that if the film kind of peters out, it demonstrates that a huge climactic event isn’t always necessary for hitting rock bottom or precipitating any kind of change. There’s a lot of good to go with the bad, such that the decision to leave Belfast is never clear-cut at any point in the film, nor should it be.
Even so, C’mon was always constantly working toward the moment when Paul would get better and Johnny would have to tearfully part ways with his nephew as Jesse got the all-clear to come back home. The entire plot kept relentlessly building toward that certain conclusion within a tightening time frame, thus it had a kind of momentum that Belfast — with its open-ended question of when or if Buddy’s family will move — simply didn’t have.
On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of movies about the conflict of “should I stay or should I go?” and the trope has always been to stay behind and look after the protagonist’s true home. Belfast doesn’t go that route. Indeed, the film stops well short of condemning the many Belfast denizens who chose to leave in search of safer ground. It makes a compelling statement that however people may wander, their ancestral home will always be right where they left it.
Likewise, C’mon C’mon makes a very clear point of refusing to condone or condemn any character. It’s openly acknowledged that Jesse can be a little shit, Johnny and Viv are both imperfect and potentially incompetent parent figures, and Paul is simply a trainwreck. Yet all of these characters are shockingly patient with each other, given numerous chances to teach each other and learn from their mistakes. And sure enough, they are often motivated to grow and to learn for the sake of their family.
When you show up at any time and for any reason, they have to take you in. That’s what home is. That’s what family is. And in their own powerful ways, both films demonstrate that superbly.
This brings me to the black-and-white presentation. In point of fact, Belfast is not completely in black and white. Indeed, the film opens with many crisp full-color shots of modern-day Belfast before transitioning to the black and white Belfast of 1969. And as the film progresses, we see plenty of movies and stage plays — the treasured escapist fantasies that take Buddy away from The Troubles — presented in full color. Thus the strategic use of color in a primarily black-and-white film has a clear and effective artistic point.
By contrast, I have no idea why C’mon C’mon was presented in black and white. It doesn’t seem to be part of any artistic statement I can surmise from the film itself, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been in any color. In fact, I’d argue that it should’ve been in color, as it would’ve done so much to make the different USA locales more distinct. For fuck’s sake, there’s one scene in which Jesse and Johnny march in a New Orleans parade. Why in the nine hells would anyone use black and white photography to shoot a parade in freaking New Orleans?! Without showing all the extravagant colors, why even bother?!
Both films are excellent, but I personally prefer C’mon C’mon. Though Jude Hill turns in a delightful debut performance, he can’t possibly shoulder an entire movie on his own — certainly not like Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman carry the film together in a thoroughly riveting team-up.
More importantly, Belfast is quite clearly a semi-autobiographical work, extremely nostalgic and introspective in its design. The film is perfectly charming and stunningly photographed, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a slow burn and less patient viewers may have a problem with the long stretches where nothing happens. By comparison, C’mon C’mon is all about huge emotions and characters acting in unpredictable ways, which makes for a more consistently exciting and endearing picture.
Yes, Belfast has a stunning cast with the likes of Jamie Dornan, Catriona Balfe, Judi Dench, and Ciaran Hinds, all of whom turn in masterful work. Even Lara McDonnell turns in a suitably charming performance, making good after she was so terribly wasted in that Artemis Fowl misfire. But while Belfast had the larger and more star-studded cast, I never quite fell in love with their characters like I did with C’mon C’mon.
In the end, Belfast will get all the Oscar buzz and quite possibly a few nominations while C’mon C’mon will be overlooked and Mike Mills will once again be denied his due. Damn shame. Don’t get me wrong, both pieces are beautiful works of cinema and well worth your time to sit through, just don’t be surprised if you need a little more patience to sit through the Branagh picture.