Bernardo Bertolucci returns to the well of adolescence in Me and You, the legendary Italian director’s first film since 2003’s ode to revolution and cinephilia, The Dreamers. This time, adapting a novella by Niccolò Ammaniti, he delves into the psyche of a character who’s even younger than the sexually active twentysomethings at the heart of his last film: that of Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a lonely, rebellious teenager who hatches a cock-eyed scheme to hide in an apartment basement while fooling his mother into thinking he’s actually on a week-long school ski trip. His paradise of solitude is punctured, however, by his much-older artist half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco), who ends up staying with him as she deals with her own personal issues—namely, her struggle to combat her heroin addiction by going cold turkey for a spell.
One might guess, from that odd-couple setup, that the film is going to develop into a classic coming-of-age tale—and so it proves, in ways that unfortunately only seem fresh in a few isolated moments. In Bertolucci’s previous portraits of that prickly transition from childhood to adulthood, a fixation that extends all the way back to his 1964 debut, Before the Revolution, he at least gave his characters enough depth that audiences understood the specific ways in which their experiences throughout the course of a film helped them to mature; The Dreamers, for instance, is as much about people discovering a fraught political world outside the cinema as it is a celebration of their passion for movies. Alas, in Me and You, because the screenplay is so stingy with giving Lorenzo the kind of backstory that might give us a fuller sense of why he behaves the way he does, the character never really transcends the stereotypes of the angst-ridden teenager.
Emotionally resistant to his psychiatrist, occasionally bratty toward his well-meaning mother, implicitly resentful of an often-absent father, and staunch in his refusal to socialize with others at school (hence his penchant for blocking out the world through headphones blasting music), Lorenzo doesn’t seem all that different from most other troubled movie kids. Not even Bertolucci’s choice of a lead actor with visible facial acne scars, in a welcome gesture toward authenticity, is enough to overcome the gaping hole of psychological nuance at the center of the film. When Olivia suggests to Lorenzo at one point toward the end that he should “stop hiding,” it’s a measure of the film’s failure to sufficiently fill in the specifics of its central adolescent character that one may well find oneself puzzled as to what exactly he’s hiding from.
Still, Lorenzo’s obsession with animals—which leads him to buy a whole ant farm to bring along to his basement hideaway during his week-long antisocial sojourn—pays off in a couple of fascinatingly expressive images: one in which he paces around the basement in the manner of the armadillo he owns, and in a subsequent image of him going over Olivia’s face with a magnifying glass as if he was inspecting those aforementioned ants. Such moments poetically suggest a young man acting on a growing curiosity toward unfamiliar experiences, and combined with his observation of Olivia’s grueling attempt at drug rehabilitation, Me and You occasionally works as a portrait of Lorenzo gradually developing a sense of perspective beyond his immediate, relatively petty concerns. This thematic thread explains why Bertolucci just barely manages to get away with ending the film on an image that’s a blatant shout-out to the iconic final shot from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Superficially, it may be unbelievably derivative, but the implications—a more overtly upbeat suggestion of endless possibilities lying before Lorenzo—are much different, and still affecting in their own way.