Narrator Film Review: Michel Gondry’s The We and the I

Today’s film review comes from Ann Lewinson, who reviews films for the Boston PhoenixThe Kansas City Star, and other publications and is a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Boston Society of Film Critics. She  also leads a NYWC workshop  for youth at The Door.

Five years ago I wandered into Deitch Projects in Soho to check out Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind“, a filmmaking playpen and tie-in with his film about a video store clerk (Mos Def) and a junkyard worker (Jack Black) remaking popular movies in an industrial, mixed-race neighborhood in Passaic, NJ. Of the installation, which included an ingenious train set with a hand-crankable scroll of passing scenery and a store where one could watch other visitors’ films, Gondry wrote: “I intend to prove that people can enjoy their time without being part of the commercial system and serving it. Ultimately, I am hoping to create a network of creativity and communication that is guaranteed to be free and independent from any commercial institution.” And then he made The Green Hornet.

So what of this project, which was very much like our own at NY Writers Coalition? “Be Kind Rewind,” in both its screen and gallery iterations, brought filmmaking to the people, or at least that was the intention. Within the movie was a short biopic of Fats Waller made with the Passaic community, but union rules dictated SAG actors. At Deitch, the results were equally predictable. Upstairs a group of middle-class, middle-aged white people were being coached in their development of an Eliot Spitzer sex-scandal TV movie. Downstairs, crews of younger people, indistinguishable from art and film students the privileged world over, were filming on the camping set and figuring out what to do in the doctor’s office. Was there “creativity and communication” going on? Perhaps. But were these people who needed Gondry’s help to make a movie?

I complained about this in a blog now lost in the Internet morgue, but now I’m eating my words, because Gondry has spent the past three years making a film with teenagers in an  afterschool program at The Point, which provides arts education in the South Bronx, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. The We and the I, which opens today at the IFC Center and MIST Harlem, is about as free and independent and anti-commercial as one could get.

For starters, it takes place almost entirely on a city bus in June on the last day of school (although it was shot later in the summer and it feels like it). For those of us whose nightmare is to be stuck on a bus with a raucous group of teenagers on their worst behavior, this is it. The bullying, orchestrated by the boys in the back, is not sugarcoated or cutesified, and it’s not easy to sit through. But it’s an honest portrayal of group dynamics (the “We”) and their impact on the individual (the “I”).

The scaffolding — a crowded bus ride gradually emptying to the last two occupants — is Gondry’s, but the stories within are the students’, who more or less play versions of themselves. What’s surprising is how closely these selves (or perhaps the selves Gondry and his co-screenwriters chose to highlight) adhere to John Hughes archetypes: the Cooper Union-bound outsider (Teresa Lynn as Ally Sheedy), her good-looking ex-boyfriend who hangs with the jerks (Michael Brodie as Andrew McCarthy), the self-centered Alpha Girl planning her Sweet 16 (Laidychen Carrasco as Lea Thompson), with an adoring flunky (Meghan “Niomi” Murphy as Marcie in “Peanuts”). But as their fellow students get off the bus, the masks come off.

We’ve seen this before, in the inner-city confessions of “The Me Nobody Knows“, or the Chorus Line dancers pulling down headshots from their faces. (“Who am I anyway?/Am I my resume?”) In NYWC workshops, we use prompts that may elicit similar, highly personal responses. We call these responses fiction, although often they aren’t. We respond to the horrific by substituting “the narrator” for the first-person “I,” and it is not always easy.

Nothing gets so bad for the teenagers in The We and the I — after all, they are products of an afterschool arts program in which some of their parents teach. Like generations before them, they are just figuring out who they are, a task now complicated by cell phones and social media. For all of the film’s use of cell phone video (which, indeed, makes everyone a filmmaker), Gondry still finds the real social interaction in the face-to-face, as an auteur of the handmade might. It is, to indulge in a cliché inescapable after spending nearly two hours on a bus in the summer in the South Bronx, a breath of fresh air. It also might be absolutely necessary.

The We and I opens today at IFC Center and MIST Harlem. Check out the trailer below, and we’ll see you at the show!