CRITICISM / FILM OPINION – In Mike Mills’ “Our Children’s Souls”, Joaquin Phoenix faces the original and complex character of a young boy carried by the very touching Woody Norman.
The personal work of Mike Mills
With beginners (2011), Mike Mills was inspired by his father and his coming out at age 75, shortly before his death. For his next film, 20th Century Women (2017), it is on his mother’s side and in his childhood memories that he went to draw. For Our children’s souls, his new feature film, Mike Mills used his experience as a father this time (he had a child in 2014) to continue his observation of parent/child relationships. He depicts here Joaquin Phoenix, a journalist reporting on young people from immigrant backgrounds and their vision of the future. He will have to put aside New York and his interviews to go to Los Angeles for a few days in order to keep his nephew. His sister being busy interning his bipolar companion in a clinic, Johnny finds himself in charge of young Jesse (Woody Norman), an original boy, with an unpredictable character.
Mike Mills never associates Jesse with a specific illness or condition. Is this one also bipolar, hypersensitive, ADHD, or something else? Basically, it doesn’t matter. He is moody, wonders about life, worries about the world around him, sometimes gets into sordid games where he imagines himself to be an orphan, and can fly into a rage for no apparent reason. A child sometimes extremely mature, and other times regressing. Difficult then for Johnny to follow him. But he will nevertheless have to make do with it, ensuring this adult role as best he can.
Moving Our children’s souls
One of the first qualities of Our children’s souls is then not to try to make the adult a superhero. On the contrary, Mike Mills is in a realistic search for truth. For this, he films, in a pleasant black and white and who does not fall into the pretentious, his duet between Los Angeles and New York. He adopts a simple but controlled staging which favors its characters. Thus, through precious moments that he manages to capture, he makes people forget the actors he directs, and even the camera it manipulates. We are alongside Johnny and Jesse in moments of complicity, of sharing, during which both get to know each other, to reveal their weaknesses, their fears.
The director touches an extremely touching form of authenticity. In particular by involving Johnny’s sister (Gaby Hoffmann, fair and moving), who will try to reassure his brother by telephone in the most delicate moments. One of the funniest and most moving passages of Our children’s souls intervenes for example when she recounts her own experience, her desire to explode when her son talks in a loop until it drives her crazy.
At this moment, Mike Mills demonstrates remarkable accuracy. He testifies there to all the complexity of raising a child and living with his own ambivalent feelings. Especially when the child himself has various emotions that he does not understand. He then makes Gaby Hoffmann a mother like any other, full of kindness and love, but who cannot hide her limits. All while keeping a certain touch of humor specific to life. A mixture of drama and comedy that accompanies us constantly.
From the great Joaquin Phoenix
Finally, it’s very smart of Mike Mills not to have made Joaquin Phoenix an irresponsible discoverer of what it is to be an adult. In Our children’s souls, the actor once again gives an excellent performance. His fragility, which he hides behind a solid physique, is all the more poignant. We are then in shock to see him collapse to the ground in a moment of fatigue. As if it was our own father who for the first time hinted at weakness.
With him, and with the equally remarkable young Woody Norman, Our children’s souls makes you smile as much as cry because it touches on an experience – direct or indirect – and gives an important place to the child to better understand him. Whether it’s Jesse, or the young people in Johnny’s report, who all have a relevant look at the adult world. in spring a moving film made of pure emotions as we had felt too little lately in the cinema.
Our children’s souls by Mike Mills, in theaters on January 26, 2021. Above the trailer. Find all our trailers here.