Even with its issues, The We and the I is a funny and entertaining film with a loudmouthed, youthful spirit.
The We and the I
High schoolers are at the most vulnerable and volatile stage in life, teetering on the precipice of adulthood. Full of insecurity, they cling to each other to form cliques in fear that they might be judged by others. They make fun so as not to get made fun of. But these groups are quick to sever allegiances once they begin to judge each other. It’s a chaotic game of ranks and hierarchy that results in broken friendships, devastating break-ups, playful flirtation, and constant self-discovery. Cram all of that crazy drama and hormones into a crowded city bus in the Bronx, and you’ve got The We and the I. Is it the glorious high-concept experimental film it should be? At times, yes, it is. But on the whole, the film is as wandering and confused as its teenage subjects. However, also like its subjects, it knows how to have a great time and talks that shit with the best of ‘em.
For The We and the I, director Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) cast a group of teenagers from the Bronx, all first time actors. He collaborated with them over two years and created a story in which they all essentially play themselves and bring their real-life experiences into the film. As the fictional BX66 bus rolls through the city on the last day of high school, the hierarchy of the wise-cracking little devils shifts and evolves as passengers come and go, fight and make up, tease and taunt. As the daylight burns away, so do the students’ facades; the dynamics of the bus become quieter, more somber, and more intimate, revealing their true character.
The story is told as a series of moments, some hilarious, some melodramatic, and some poignant. The problem is, though the scenes work wonderfully on their own, they don’t quite gel as a whole. While the chaotic atmosphere Gondry creates is appreciated, incessant tonal shifts in the story become a little jarring. There are several subplots going on simultaneously with different kids on the bus, and he bounces around between them wildly. He challenged himself with a difficult juggling act, and while it’s far from a disaster, it sure ain’t smooth sailing.
The good news is that the scenes work well in the moment. There’s a kinetic energy to the filmmaking, and a lot of that is due to the cast. The inexperience of the actors helps add to the rawness and realism of the scenes. It’s fun to watch these kids shoot the shit with each other, and that’s a hard thing to pull off in movies, even with experienced actors. When the three boys who play tyrants at the back of the bus terrorize the smaller, geekier kids, it feels organic and unscripted. In the film’s most dramatic and intense scene, a gay couple discusses the damaging turn their relationship has taken as of late. The emotion feels real here, and it should; the boys were romantically linked behind the scenes, so the pain they feel on camera is very real.
While The We and the I is visually more grounded in reality than most of Gondry’s famous works, it’s still incredibly colorful and striking. Virtually the entirety of the film takes place inside the bus, with the illusion of real time. He finds a way to make the cramped environment always look interesting, sometimes even finding inventive ways to inject his signature whimsical flourishes. The soundtrack is a bangin’ throwback to the 80’s, with hip-hop tracks that recall a time when the genre was all about bright colors, ridiculous outfits, and having a good time.
The We and the I is part experiment, part hang-out movie, and part coming of age story. Visually, Gondry is as wildly successful as ever, and the actors put on great performances across the board. There are moments of greatness throughout, but the erratic storytelling makes for a bumpy ride (no pun intended.) What’s missing here is a more clearly defined narrative or thematic through-line. Even with its issues, The We and the I is a funny and entertaining film with a loudmouthed, youthful spirit.