by Tony Dayoub
By turns raucous and lyrical, The We and the I is a small high school movie elevated to near greatness by its inspired director, Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind). As the title suggests, Gondry is mostly focused on the contrast between each teenager's raw, personal self and the public face they put on in the larger company of their schoolmates. For this he enlists a varied group of South Bronx teens—all of color and all recruited from a Bronx youth development program known as the Point. Gondry does his best impression of a fly on the wall observing the quickly changing social dynamics of the kids as they ride the bus home on the last day of school.
Fly on the wall as far as Gondry is concerned, I mean. The visual fabulist brings to bear many of his uniquely imaginative ways of communicating a person's state of mind or individual perspective on what is essentially a bottle film. That is, we're mostly confined in the one city bus as it weaves through the South Bronx in something close to real time. But it rarely feels claustrophobic because Gondry frequently employs some innovative forms of split-screen, mixed media, flashback and more to convey the events occurring on the bus, outside of it, or even in the daydreams of some of the quirkier kids we encounter. And he utilizes what could be some fairly flashy techniques in ways that arise organically from the story. My favorite is the instance in which Lil Raymond (Raymond Delgado) and Jonathan (Jonathan Ortiz) hop off the bus to get some pizza for themselves and the bus driver (Mia Lobo) while a car accident blocks their route. They call a friend on the bus hoping she'll tell them when traffic starts moving again. Rather than using the typical split screen effect to show both sides of the conversation, Gondry subtly places Lil Raymond and Jonathan on the bus window pane located behind the girl in a fashion that evokes a reflection more than a green-screen effect. The liberation of Gondry's camera from what could be the hemmed-in confines of a claustrophobic set in effect mirrors the freedom this rowdy gang of high-schoolers is particularly enjoying on their last day of class.
While the initial effect of following close to forty kids with speaking parts is intimidating, unwieldy, even disorienting, Gondry is deliberate in laying out The We and the I. The first person we see is blonde-bewigged Teresa (Teresa Lynn), a chubby Latina cutting class. It's fitting that she likes to sketch from life since it is mostly through her observations that we learn about the rest of her acquaintances from school, particularly the pretty but insecure Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco) and Michael (Michael Brodie), a boy both girls are infatuated with. Gondry structures the first act, "The Bullies," around Michael and his obnoxious friends, who carouse and cajole around the bus and the other kids with joyful abandon and callousness to their feelings.
This early part of the movie rings truest. As someone who attended middle school close to Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, with most kids only a bit more advantaged than those in Gondry's film, I felt like I was experiencing deja vu. Cruelty emanates from Michael's friends one moment, then hypersensitivity when the tables are turned on them, both byproducts of their desire to establish order in their otherwise dispiriting lives. Sweet emotional interludes, like a moment when Jonathan spies a beautiful girl in a sundress riding a bicycle alongside the bus, are rudely interrupted—in this case by Laidychen's brother, who grossly catcalls "You've got big tits" to the young lady. As Gondry makes clear, a vulgar kind of showboating is derived from the competition inherent in the group dynamic. But in the movie's successive chapters, "The We" and "The I," things settle down both visually and aurally as each young person is dropped off at their destination. Layers are peeled away and the slow whittling down of the bus's denizens evinces confessional moments from the remaining riders, some of which admittedly border on clumsy.
But this is more a result of the inexperience of The We and the I's cast of non-actors, which is something I can live with. The trade-off is a level of verisimilitude Gondry is able to elicit from his ensemble of young players, one unseen in this kind of picture since perhaps Larry Clark's Kids (1995)... or at least Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003). Except that the comparison is inappropriate given the often horrifying, shocking tone of each of those films. The We and the I is its own kind of animal, hilarious, touching and real, something unexpected but welcome from its unpredictable director.
The We and the I opens in New York tomorrow and in Los Angeles on March 22nd.