It’s funny to write this, but there are times that I think I understand young people less and less as I get older. Not that I’m ancient, but now that I’m settling into my thirties, I’m beginning to realize just how drastically different the my own generation’s experiences are from the Millennials.
But even as I type that, I know it’s not completely true. Given the opportunity to sit and talk to one of them — “one of them,” as if they’re another species or from a distant planet — I find the same concerns that plague adults, just in different ways: wanting to belong, wanting to be alone, wanting to get laid, wanting to want something.
That’s one of the impulses at work in Michel Gondry’s latest film, The We and the I. Starring first-time actors and set almost entirely on a bus in the Bronx, these moments of understanding stick out among the rest of the material, which sometimes just feels like an interesting acting exercise for high schoolers.
The We and the I
Director: Michel Gondry
Release Date: March 8, 2013 (New York); March 22, 2013 (LA)
Gondry’s movies tend to be their best when he uses surrealism and whimsy to emphasize the weight of human drives and emotions. Obviously there’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at the top (the fact it was written by Charlie Kaufman helps), and I think that Be Kind Rewind is similarly effective in that regard. Both use one strange idea to get at something deeper — a science fiction process of forgetting is really about the beauty of memories and relationships; the zany local video store is really about the erosion of neighborhoods and community. The combination of whimsy and humanity is half-realized in The We and the I, and while they’re different kinds of films, The We and the I reminds me a lot of my impressions of The Science of Sleep: some great ideas, but nothing ties together.
It’s the last day of school, and a bunch of high school kids from The Bronx are heading home before hitting parties at night. Many of them pile into a single city bus where they take over — a barbarian/pirate invasion. The adult riders mostly tolerate the noise and the BS of a bunch of high school kids, many of whom are, frankly, assholes. During one leg of their ride, they make fun of a middle-aged man with a cleft palate before covering him in chewing gum. Kids can be cruel, high school kids can be downright inhuman.
It’s ugly stuff, and since it comes early on, it made me think we were about to see Gondry do his own riff on a Larry Clark movie like Kids or Bully. The first of the film’s three chapter of the film is even called “The Bullies,” and it focuses on four douchebags riding in the back. One of these bullies is Michael (Michael Brody), who’s something of a throughline in the film. One character says Michael’s not like that when he’s away from his other friends, and we get a sense of some greater depth to him beyond treating people like garbage. When he’s not teasing Teresa (Teresa Lynn) about her weight, he reaches out to her as a friend. But that’s not something he can do all the time — he’s got an image to keep.
The We and the I is all about seeing various high schoolers’s lives play out and change over the course of 90 minutes. We learn more about Teresa and her own aspirations, and there’s the troubles of Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco) and her family. Some characters only exist as side or background players, but their presence makes the high school world of The We and the I feel fully realized. (One character exists only as a viral video and yet feels real.) I started to see my teenage-self in some of these side characters more than the main ones, actually, but I sense that Gondry felt the same way. There’s a sympathy in the way Gondry and co-writers Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch approach the artists and the oddballs of the film, probably because they were the outsiders themselves at one time (or most times). Why else would someone be reading a Daniel Clowes comic if they weren’t a little bit like Gondry themselves even before the film began?
The We and the I was conceived as part of an after school arts and performance workshop, and it’s from this program that Gondry pulled his ensemble. In general, all of the performances are great considering the age of the actors. I think the previously mentioned Brody, Carrasco, and Lynn are particularly good, and not just because they do a lot of the film’s heavy lifting. Manuel Rivera (one of the outsiders) also turns in a stunning moment toward the end, which is notable for its understated authenticity. Actually, I should note that I think it’s Manuel Rivera who I’m referring to. Since I can’t read my own notes and the ensemble is so big, I may be mistaking him for someone else.
Rather than a single story, The We and the I is made up of vignettes, which turns out to be both its strength and its weakness. Some of these vignettes are especially strong and give Gondry a chance to exercise his penchant for whimsy and visceral human stuff. In one scene we watch an inept would-be player talk about how badass he is at a party that probably never happened. In another scene, we see the sordid desperation between two characters at a party that actually did happen. This blends of high and low feel real, like part of lived experience — it’s the stuff of high school we can recognize.
But the authenticity of The We and the I‘s best moments highlights just how artificial some of its other vignettes are. I’m not talking about how one afternoon can be the catalyst for a change in a person — that I can accept because even though it’s the stuff of movies, it can also be the stuff of real life given the right set of circumstances. There’s one scene between Brandon Diaz and Luis Figueroa that feels like something right out of a drama class rather than something that belongs in the film. It feels, for lack of a proper phrase, like a “crying scene” exercise. The relationship between these two teens is falling apart, and this is the moment where the big break occurs, and it happens with a speech and tears.
And yet, while the emotions are real, the things that they say to one another feel intellectualized or filtered rather than raw. To put it another way, the tears are real, the emotions are real, but something about the moment not as real. It may be because of the mental gymnastics and plot devices needed to get to this moment — in brief and without spoilers, it has something to do with metaphorical switched identities and role reversals, both of which feel like inventions of an adult mind rather than the stuff of a teenage relationship, no matter how precocious the people are. It all feels like an improv game, and it’s one of a few moments that hangs flat in a movie that does have a human heart — many of them, actually.
In some ways, The We and the I feels just like what you’d expect from a kind of exercise or workshop project. There are ideas being refined, reworked, created; there are characters and relationships and stories that, even if based on real life, are just taking shape on screen. It’s an interesting look at a process for fans of Gondry, and as flawed as The We and the I is, I wouldn’t mind seeing another movie by Gondry featuring these characters.
One condition: next time, let’s stay off the bus.