Nearly every time Michel Gondry has wanted to make a film about his adopted home on the American East Coast, it’s felt as though he’s had to create an excuse to do it.
With “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” Gondry found a comedian suddenly without an outlet (or the comedian found him) with the shared interest in throwing a block party for the community. Three years later, he would cross the bridge to New Jersey to make Be Kind Rewind, a film that exuded as much love for a community in Passaic as it did for VHS tapes under the guise of a buddy comedy where Jack Black and Mos Def sweded old movies. Now, in “The We and the I,” it feels like Gondry finally gave up on finding a reason to shoot in the city and the culture that’s clearly so close to his heart and just did it, resulting in his best and most emotionally reverberant film since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Gondry production if there wasn’t some kind of invention in it, but rather than creating the handmade visual effects that have become his signature, the director and screenwriters Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch have challenged themselves by setting the majority of “The We and the I” on an MTA bus from the Bronx on the last day of school before summer. Filling the Barreto Point-bound Bx66 with sophomores from Miller Hopkins High School, Gondry devises a rolling version of “Dazed and Confused” with a multi-ethnic cast and a whole different set of generational concerns.
The film takes place in an era where classmates have no problem snapping themselves in the buff on a cell phone and one can feel left out if they’re the last to be e-mailed a viral video, but are more reticent to expose themselves in face-to-face conversation, as even the most brash of the bus riders demonstrate. At first, that would appear to be Michael (Michael Brodie), who takes to the back of the bus like a king ascending to his rightful throne, with three friends forming his court and meting out justice to others with slaps to the head and nasty namecalling. His kingdom consists of various fiefdoms – a group of girls near the front who are busy deciding who can and can’t attend a Sweet 16 for one of them, two sets of the artistically inclined who lower their heads to strum instruments or draw, a couple whose seventh-month relationship is now marked by endless PDA, and Teresa (Teresa Lynn) , an outsider who comes aboard the bus wearing a wig and spends the rest of “The We and the I” trying, futilely to protect what’s going on underneath.
During the hour-and-a-half ride home, the cliques are forced to collide with no one immune from Michael’s gang’s mean-spirited pranking. But eventually the most juvenile acts lead to more serious introspection and the film nails the all-or-nothing emotions its characters have trouble verbalizing, with Michael in particularly feeling the sudden robbery of his power as others, who have clearly had more time to figure out who they are, find themselves with more. As day turns into night, the film grows darker as well as some of the kids’ extracurricular activities are revealed in shockingly casual terms, but instead of attempting to shock with recollections of sexual encounters, “The We and the I” allows the characters’ indifference to their actions but a resulting fear of how they’ll be perceived to provide the drama, which Gondry never overplays. The fact that these aren’t kids on the cusp of graduation, but instead a class of undergrads that will have to deal with the fallout when summer vacation ends adds more tension.
For better or worse, “The We and the I” also affords all of its characters a chance to shine, enriching the stories of Michael and Teresa, who have the longest way to go both home and otherwise, but may short change audiences since some of the film’s most compelling characters are let off the bus before we’d want to see them leave. Sam (Justin McMillan), a sly stud who talks a bigger game than he has, allows Gondry to indulge in some fantasies while the kid speaks of his own, exiting a Lamborghini with a score of honeys by his side. We also barely get to know Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell), an imposing tough guy with a Mohawk who communicates largely via text message after being chased off the bus by a senior citizen, depriving the film of one of its most distinctive characters. However, that only makes what time we are able to spend in the company of this ensemble cast all the more precious, though that’s a word I’d hesitate to use to describe Gondry’s otherwise raucous ride.
“The We and the I” opens in New York on March 8th and Los Angeles on March 22nd.It premieres this month as the opening night film of the SF Indiefest on February 7th and as the closing night film of the Film Comment Selects series at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on February 28th.