Sometimes freedom’s just another romanticized word for a knot of tough realities — as documentarian Nanfu Wang discovers in her affecting new film. When she was still new to the United States, and before she returned to China to make her debut doc, Hooligan Sparrow, Wang befriended a fellow millennial who was living a nomadic life. For a brief while she joined him on the streets, camera in hand, to record his day-to-day experiences and, more than that, to understand why someone from a solidly middle-class family had chosen this route. 

The resulting work, connecting four years of disparate encounters and crisscrossing miles, is an indelible, deceptively straightforward study. A natural for art-house exposure, I Am Another You offers further evidence of this young director’s investigative energy and eye for cinematic poetry without the slightest preciousness. 

Sharing cinematography and editing duties with Michael Shade, with fine contributions from composers Nathan Halpern and Chris RuggieroWang has crafted a stirring portrait, one that holds a refracting mirror to her preconceptions and ours. Wang’s use of the first person is exceptionally agile and illuminating as she questions not just her affable subject, but her own idealized notions about the American spirit of self-determination. At a Florida hostel in 2011, she met Dylan Olsen, a captivating 22-year-old Utah native who’d been on the road for a year. He’s something of a barefoot philosopher, speaking with clarity and conviction about a life free from materialist constraints and conventional expectations. “Eating, happiness and community” are his only goals, he says. As a vagrant, he achieves them. 

When he ends his hostel stopover to return to his natural element, Olsen agrees to let Wang accompany and film him. He teaches her the ways of the wanderer, and she teaches him to use her camera. “This,” she narrates over footage of her sitting on a sidewalk, slice of pizza in hand, “was the first time I ate food from a garbage can.” 

There’s a charged mix of vibrant optimism and caution in the film’s early sections. The kindness of strangers figures prominently. Seeing themselves, or perhaps what they want to be, in the footloose charmer, people are generous, offering a ride, a place to stay, a meal, a few bucks. What comes around goes around: When Olsen puts in the time to listen to a time-share spiel and get a cash reward, he spends some of it on a restaurant dinner and gives away the rest. 

It doesn’t take an outsider to American culture, as Wang is, to notice that not all homeless people are treated with such admiration and openness. Olsen is white, good-looking, educated and personable. He’s homeless by choice — or so he contends, until, many months later, he acknowledges the struggles beneath the carefree surface. 

The struggles belong to his family back in Utah as well, people Wang gets to know when she picks up the story again, with revelatory results. What emerges is the story of a teenager’s drug-fueled rebellion against his Mormon community. It’s the story of a father’s tearful recollection of the day he put his troubled eldest son on a bus to San Diego, rather than dropping him off in the local mountains as requested. But it's also much more than that. It turns out that there were many things Olsen didn’t reveal during Wang’s initial time with him — and many things that he did, had she been open to the possibility. 

Just how much self-knowledge and effort has been involved in his “freedom,” and just how much he has in common with many other homeless people, is the film’s ultimate kicker. From Wang’s footage of their first encounter to his written musings, in voiceover, to the astounding “enactment” of schizophrenia that he orchestrates near the film’s end, Olsen is always a searcher. Not everyone will agree with the way he questions social standards and definitions. But it’s hard to argue when he describes himself as one of the “empathic, sensitive people who see things other people can’t see.”

Production companies: Little Horse Crossing the River, Hard Working Movies
Director: Nanfu Wang
Producers: Nanfu Wang, Lori Cheatle
Directors of photography: Nanfu Wang, Michael Shade
Editors: Nanfu Wang, Michael Shade
Composers: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Submarine

82 minutes