by Matt Levine
One of the most versatile and imaginative stylists in modern cinema, Michel Gondry has made a habit of balancing his visual innovation with invigorating unpredictability. His career was catapulted by some of the most breathtaking music videos of the last two decades (including, my personal favorite, Björk’s astonishing “Bachelorette”). He teased out one of Jim Carrey’s finest performances in the Charlie Kaufman-penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a romance as cerebral as it was melancholy. His 2005 musical documentary Block Party, with Dave Chappelle serving as ringleader, was both a showcase for some of the best hip-hop today as well as an ode to the electric diversity of modern urban life. Maybe most surprisingly, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was an amiable comedy that sincerely celebrated cinema’s ability to unite audiences and communities. Through it all, certain themes have reappeared, including humans’ propensity to retreat within themselves in the face of misery or to live every day as if it were a performance, our characters defined by the way people expect us to behave. These two themes are front-and-center in Gondry’s latest feature, The We and the I—though this ostensibly warmhearted experiment in communal filmmaking is more interesting in theory than in practice.
Director: Michel Gondry
Producers: Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann, Julie Fong, Michel Gondry
Writers: Michel Gondry, Jeffrey Grimshaw, Paul Proch
Cinematographer: Alex Disenhof
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Cast: Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn, Raymond Delgado, Jonathan Ortiz, Jonathan Worrell, Alex Barrios, Laidychen Carrasco, Meghan “Niomi” Murphy, Chenkon H. Carrasco, Jacobchen Carrasco, Konchen Carrasco, Raymond Rios, Kenny Quinonez, Amanda Mercado, Manuel Rivera, Jillian Rice, Chantelle-Lisa Davis, Brandon Diaz, Luis Figueroa, Marlene Perez, Patricia Persaud, Carolina Noboa, Esmeralda Herrera, Justin “Sam” McMillan, Elijah Canada
Premiere: May 17, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 8, 2013
US DVD Release: September 17, 2013
US Distributors: 108 Media, Paladin, Virgil Films
Although three writers are credited with the screenplay, in actuality the dialogue and plot were concocted by dozens of real-life teenagers from the Point, a Bronx community center. Gondry worked with these students over the last two years, inviting them to craft their own characters (culled, with varying degrees of truthfulness, from their real-life personalities) and create an array of personal dramas, many of which revolve around the hormonal lusts and anxieties of pent-up teenagers. The We and the I follows this multicultural ensemble along one (very long) bus ride through South Bronx, where their lightning-in-a-bottle energy is unleashed before an audience of random observers (whose reactions range from bemusement to disgust).
Viewers of The We and the I will likely share in these observers’ dismayed reactions—watching the film really is like sitting on a crowded bus for two hours, and as someone without a car who takes public transit nearly every day, I can attest that this isn’t always the most pleasant experience. You might think, given The We and the I’s unique production backstory, that the movie would avoid cliché, but lo and behold, we have the bullies, the artists, the self-obsessed divas, the quiet weirdos, the bickering gay couple, and on and on. The obscene assholes who occupy the back of the bus are especially impossible to like (which is problematic since one of them is the movie’s unofficial main character): they smash a fellow student’s guitar, squirt pudding (vanilla, natch) onto an old lady’s chest, stick a condom and chewed-up gum onto the back of a man with a cleft lip (after ridiculing him, of course), and even hide a lit cigarette from the irate bus driver by placing it in the lips of a nearby infant. Many other characters’ self-infatuation and immaturity are no more relatable. The point, seemingly, is that kids will be kids, and even such irritating people are worthy of our consideration and sympathy; but the non-professional actors’ stilted line readings and awkward self-awareness (not to mention their characters’ reprehensible cruelty) ensures that any potential affection the audience might have for this ensemble is dead on arrival.
To be fair, some of the characters are affecting. The aforementioned bickering gay couple, Brandon and Luis, is not the butt of homophobic jokes as they might have been in another high-school comedy; the trauma they face is significant, and the actors do an excellent job at exposing their damaged vulnerability (especially in a tearful breakdown that’s silently witnessed by the entire bus). There are also some sweet subplots, including a tentative romance between sweet-natured Niomi and an affably sarcastic musician, with their first kiss obliquely glimpsed through the passing bus window. If only the entire cast shared these performers’ natural charisma.
It’s also clear that The We and the I has a lot of ideas on its mind. The vile malice exhibited by “the bullies” is suggested as an insecure performance, a demonstration of virile power that falls apart as soon as their classmates leave. Problem is, this is conveyed by one character, Michael, abruptly and unconvincingly shifting from complete malignity to gentle fragility, all in the space of one interaction that would be deemed amateurish even in a high-school drama production. The solemnity with which the film ends (including the unexpected murder of another student) is meant to contextualize the bad behavior so often exhibited by these characters, but instead it comes off as a jarring and pretentious counterpoint to the juvenility that had defined the previous 90 minutes. Finally, the ubiquity of digital devices (including flashbacks which appear as low-quality videos shot on the characters’ cell phones, or a viral video that’s replayed incessantly) is meant to convey the hyperactive, logged-in existence of young people in the modern world, but it’s only an interesting theme for anyone who hasn't stepped inside a city over the last ten years.
I truly wanted The We and the I to be successful, especially considering a communal approach to filmmaking that instills its real-life cast with a lot of authorial agency. This approach to plotting and character isn’t entirely new: another Frenchman, Jean Rouch, collaborated with a number of filmmakers and actors in Niger in the 1940s and ‘50s to create a new movement in film known as “ethnofiction”; and the British director Mike Leigh is known for holding character workshops with his actors in order to mold their characters in unison. But such a collaborative approach is rare in American cinema (The We and the I was co-financed by American, British, and French producers), and this organic form of characterization is not often applied to a group of rowdy high-schoolers biding their time on public transit.
Give Gondry and his youthful cast points for ambition, then. Many of these exchanges do have a fiery, improvisatory feel to them, and the movie’s non-judgmental attitude towards some shockingly bad behavior is hypothetically admirable. Yet what makes Rouch and Leigh such incredible pioneers in characterization is their ability to guide their actors’ internal impulses, turning non-performers (or revered actors, for that matter) into flesh-and-blood characters who believably exist rather than artificially recite dialogue. Gondry, apparently, does not have the same skill in creating something spontaneous and indelible alongside an amateur cast; he seems to let this vivacious group of writers and performers run away with the movie, retaining their abrasive tenacity while failing to channel it into something emotional or thought-provoking.
There are slight charms that the film offers, especially Gondry’s wide-eyed fascination with New York City (also exhibited in Block Party) and a soundtrack jam-packed with old-school rap classics, though fans of such music would be better off simply listening to Slick Rick or Big Daddy Kane on headphones. Gondry’s visual wit pops up occasionally, though the flashbacks and fantasies that unexpectedly appear too often come off as forced and incompatible with the simplicity of the city-bus setting. Ultimately, it’s not surprising that the movie barely received a theatrical release, and is now available on a barebones DVD (there are no special features to speak of) distributed by featherweight Virgil Films: it’s a grating experiment that buckles under the weight of its misguided amateur performances and unbearable cast of characters. Here’s hoping the next attempt at communal, underground filmmaking displays the vitality and innovation that such under-the-radar circumstances can accomplish.