Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Michel Gondry's THE WE AND THE I: beaucoup energy (from the performers), anger-and-joy combo (from the audience)

When TrustMovies recalls high-school movies during the time he has remaining, it will no longer be The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller, Andy Hardy or Project X that comes first to mind. Nope. THE WE AND THE I, the new amazement from Michel Gondry, has pretty much wiped that slate clean. What a wonderful film this is. And what an enormous surprise.

M. Gondry, shown above, appears to be a filmmaker, like Mr. Soderbergh, who wants to try everything. When he succeeds, as he so firmly does here, despite a few blips along the way -- some sentimentality, a little over-the-top behavior --  the filmmaker and his amazing and very game cast of young people (together with a few oldsters) finally allow you to see these kids whole. This is an opportunity rarely given and almost never as fully achieved as here.

The filmmaker's ace in the hole is his unique setting: a MTA bus here in New York (in the Bronx, I believe) which takes the kids from their last day of school (we see them leaving the school, and boarding that bus) to their various destinations. Along the route they interact with each other and the adult passengers, some of whom immediately leave the bus once the kids have boarded: smart move. (The filmmaker uses a tiny model of the bus in the opening credits, which are a delight.)

Were it not for the truly amazing energy level of these youngsters and the smart, realistic manner in which Gondry has captured them, I admit that I would probably not have finished the film. So rude and crude is some of their behavior toward the older people on the bus (they could be me!) that I found myself asking, "Where is Bernie Goetz when you really need him?" Other kids will laugh at this behavior, of course, but those of us to whom it is directed can only cringe.

And yet so vital and energetic are the performances of these youngsters (truly, they are amazing) that I found myself hooked, despite my anger at their behavior. And slowly, they and Gondry won me over completely.

The director has spiked his movie with tiny moments of fantasy, as well as flashbacks, in which, for instance, one of those old folk goes after her tormentor with a tree branch and sends him sprawling. At other times we see moments of the kids' own wish fulfillment, or their history. These are generally short and sweet (or sour) and help fill in the blanks of the characters nicely, without undue pushing.

Among the enormous cast are everyone from the school bullies, who commandeer the rear of the bus to a gay male couple who, rather than receiving the brick-a-bats you'd expect, seem to occupy a place as some sort of exotic species. Their heart-to-heart late in the movie is surprising and moving.

The young ladies are as varied and interesting as your could wish; ditto the nerds, the musicians, and the occasional single -- one of whom (above) comes into his own as the finale approaches, and another whom we see only in captured video moments, whose story comes full circle only at the end.

The movie is fictional, I am guessing, but documentary technique has certainly been used to make it pulsate so winningly. While the acting occasionally stumbles, the step is never long enough to do real damage. And often the acting is superb, so much so, that you begin to wonder if this is not a documentary.

As the bus ride continues and more passengers depart the vehicle, the film grow quieter and even stronger. If M. Gondry ever makes a better, more important movie than this one, we're should start polishing the crown. In its way, The We and the I (the title of which I suspect refers to the kids' behavior in a group, as opposed to that as an individual) is like nothing we've seen. In a time when the world as we know it appears to be about to undergo either huge and terrible changes, if not a full stop, how refreshing to see a film that imbues humanity with such hope.

Gondry's film opens in New York City this Friday, March 8, at the IFC Center and the Mist Harlem Cinema; in Los Angeles, it will open on March 22 at the Landmark NuArt, followed by other venues in cities across the country as the weeks go by.

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