Waiting for an F train at the Delancey Street station a few summers back, I witnessed a display of condensed teenage effusiveness that seemed to have been loosed from the very heart of a classic musical, with two groups of kids engaging in an amazingly raucous cross-track dance battle. Taking place across a feverish bus trip home on the last day of school, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I is basically the cinematic equivalent of such an explosion of adolescent magic, a delirious representation of incipient personalities in bloom, its form as amorphous and reckless as the vibrant youths it portrays.
A magnificent ethnographic experiment, the film comes as the end product of a long working association between the French director and students at a Bronx high school. Gondry apparently spent two years laying groundwork and forming relationships, finally coming up with a loose, collaborative script, in which the bus is established as a performative space, a venue for the 30 or so teenagers to vent their fears, doubts, and insecurities. Almost all the action takes place in this enclosed world, except for a few quick jaunts into whimsical fantasy, with some oddly staged flashbacks and one increasingly prominent viral video. Using the connection between these dramatic flights of fancy and the more realistic action on the bus, the director manages to tell their stories in a naturalistic way that’s tinged with intermittent moments of homespun enchantment.
Gondry’s films have always been acutely concerned with performance, allowing the usually personal sphere of costumes and make-believe to bleed into the world at large, with the sort of identity-shaping experiments that would normally be confined to childhood spilling over to the realm of adults. Coming after his sneakiest exploration of these fixations (a manchild using a superhero guise to formulate an adult persona in The Green Hornet), The We and the I is probably the most direct, using its charismatic non-actors as physical personifications of adolescent fluidity. Whether fighting, teasing, or flirting, they’re consistently off-the-cuff and natural, graced with storylines that don’t push too much beyond the likely boundaries of their actual lives.
This means that, aside from the initial novelty of the narrative device, which recalls Jean Rouch’s experiments in giving voice to the voiceless, The We and the I offers a rare ethnic cross-section of city kids who aren’t in trouble or at risk, going through the same identity struggles that plague teenagers everywhere. This fresh air pervades throughout, although things get a little less perfect in the third act, which incorporates a few clunky dramatic overtures in an unnecessary attempt at climactic forcefulness. Even this kind of works, arriving as a natural conclusion of both a teen-scripted drama and the film’s ingenious structure, where each character’s story terminates once they reach their bus stop, slowly narrowing down the pool of tales to be told.
It’s a maneuver that pinpoints the focus here, further suggested by the title, highlighting the journey from group component to individual personality that accompanies the passage to adulthood. The kids start out ensconced in specific groups based on race, culture, and personal taste, defining themselves as class clowns or tough guys or sensitive artists, but the ones who stick around longest get impelled toward singular identities as the bus empties out, the carapace of their assumed personas giving way to moments of real emotional vulnerability. In one of the movie’s most telling gestures, those who get off at the wrong stop, making their own destinies rather than yielding to those pre-allotted to them, seem to be granted the happiest outcomes, a few additional bright spots in a film full of inclusive magic.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.