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CANNES – Shrugging off the studio straitjacket of The Green Hornet and breezing back into territory that’s far more accommodating to his playful visual aesthetic and loose-limbed approach to narrative, Michel Gondry takes an idiosyncratic, funny, unexpectedly poignant snapshot of American youth in The We and the I. Rambling and unpolished, the film has a scrappy charm that springs organically from the characters and their stories rather than being artificially coaxed. And while its South Bronx milieu is both vivid and specific, it also has enough universality to connect with teens across broader socio-cultural lines.
Written by Gondry, Paul Proch and Jeff Grimshaw, the low-budget project was developed from an idea by Gondry via a long workshop process with kids from The Point, a Bronx-based community program that provides exposure to arts and activism. Stirring their own stories into the kind of messy stew that echoes the social strata of teens just about everywhere, the film places the kids – black, Latino, Asian, mixed-race – in the claustrophobic microcosm of a long bus ride home on the final day of high school.
The key characters emerge only gradually. Their details are sketched in as passengers alight and the crowd gets thinner. Different conversations are struck up, friendships that seem forged in iron are revealed to be fragile, and circumspect interactions hint at potentially greater depths. While the film could stand to lose 10-15 minutes, its natural flow and its casual yet keen-eyed observation of constantly shifting group dynamics keep it compelling. Gondry peppers the action with quirky video fragments – sometimes viewed on the kids’ smart-phones, sometimes conjured from their memories or hatched out of their amusing fantasies. But this is nothing like the irritatingly self-satisfied hipsterism of the director’s Be Kind, Rewind.
The two central figures are Michael (Michael Brodie) and Teresa (Teresa Lynn). He’s the cool, handsome dude that rules the swaggering posse at the back of the bus; she’s the chunky, depressive girl who hangs with them despite being frequently subjected to their ridicule. In a misguided attempt to up her cool factor, she boards the bus in a blonde Lady Gaga wig that earns her extra mockery.
There’s also Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco), a borderline mean girl whittling down an invite list for her sweet-sixteen party, and her smart sidekick Niomi (Meghan “Niomi” Murphy), who exists in that amorphous middle-ground between being a true friend and a useful social prop for Laidychen. Silent and immersed in his reading for most of the ride but figuring more significantly toward the end is Alex (Alex Barrios), who stands outside the pack and has little time for Michael’s BS.
Even where these kids conform to established stereotypes, they have enough of their own kinks and defining characteristics to be rooted in authentic experience. And the soulful undercurrents they reveal never feel forced.
While not all the acting is entirely unselfconscious, Gondry on the whole gets disarmingly natural performances out of the nonprofessional cast. Most of all, he and his co-writers clearly developed a genuine affection for them through the communal experience of making the film, meaning even at their most abrasive and insensitive – harassing strangers, disrespecting adults, victimizing underdogs, destroying property – they are viewed with a compassionate, nonjudgmental eye that accepts adolescent behavior on its own terms.
Broken down into three parts – The Bullies, The Chaos, The I – the main stories take shape slowly and satisfyingly. But the broader portrait is fleshed out by characters on the periphery, viewed at times in brief, telling glimpses and at others in more full-bodied detours. Among those is the melodrama of a gay couple (Brandon Diaz, Luis Figueroa) dealing with a sexual transgression outside their relationship. The film displays a nice grasp of the radical extremes of youth – the lightning switches from insouciance to angst to self-dramatizing fury; the casual cruelty and the surprise displays of tenderness.
The tough realities of life in a community marked by drugs, violence and economic difficulties are touched upon in the script, without the need for emphatic commentary.
Alex Disenhof’s camera jumps around in the confined space with nimble ease. The rough-edged film’s only technical drawback is a raw sound mix that captures the hubbub of a crowded school bus but consequently makes some of the vernacular-rich dialogue hard to catch. As is to be expected from music-video veteran Gondry, the soundtrack is a lively mix, with sharp use of late-‘80s tracks by rapper Young MC.
The film will likely be a little too ambling and unstructured for wide commercial exposure. But it gets under the skin of its characters, capturing their unpredictable energy and emotional volatility in ways that provide a fresh alternative to the slick, overscripted teen movies and television shows that usually cover this terrain.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Production companies: Partizan Films, in association with Kinology, Mars Films
Cast: Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn, Laidychen Carrasco, Raymond Delgado, Jonathan Ortiz, Jonathan Worrell, Alex Barrios, Meghan ‘Niomi” Murphy
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriters: Michel Gondry, Paul Proch, Jeff Grimshaw
Producers: Michel Gondry, Julie Fong, Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann
Executive producer: Becky Glupcunski
Director of photography: Alex Disenhof
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
No rating, 103 minutes
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