French director Michel Gondry became known mostly for his enchantingly leftfield and often inspired pop videos; but that has not always translated well into feature filmmaking, though he has one bona fide classic under his belt, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the nearly ten years that have passed since that masterpiece, though, Mr. Gondry has been unable to find a narrative script that does justice to his arresting, hand-crafted, DIY approach to visual fireworks, culminating in his surrender to blockbuster tropes in the rather anonymous The Green Hornet. There is, however, an alternate side to his work, a lower-key, lower-budget parallel career made visible in smaller-scale personal projects such as Dave Chappelle's Block Party and the documentary The Thorn in the Heart, to which The We and the I wholeheartedly belongs.

     Born out of a lengthy workshop with teenagers from a Bronx community center, The We and the I starts out as a very "sober" film in visual terms. It's entirely set inside a NYC public-transit bus, dropping off a loud group of high school students along its (fictional) South Bronx route after school ends for summer. Mr. Gondry basically lets the kids free to do whatever it is high school kids do: the film is essentially a microcosm of unfiltered teenage life concentrated within the moving bus in almost real time, the youngsters playing pretty much versions of themselves within a fictional narrative suggested by their own experiences. They display the constant push and pull of wanting to belong and be accepted within the wider group, while still remaining true to themselves and to their personality - hence "the we and the I" of the title, suggesting the never-ending attempt at striking a difficult balance between individual and social. There is one central thread recurring throughout the entire "trip": the courtship of on-and-off sweethearts Teresa (Teresa Lynn) and Michael (Michael Brodie), swerving from groupthink to standing up for themselves as they interact with a busload of schoolmates who all feel the same issues in different ways.

     Mr. Gondry constructs the film very smartly: random and chaotic at first, it coalesces slowly as the bus moves onwards, gaining depth and emotional strength as the kids get out on their stops (even if they remain connected through cellphones and text messages), and finally articulating clearly its whole raison d'être in the excellent third act. It's a less "visual" object than we're used to from the director, even though there are a few winks at his DIY effect wizardry, but it's also a much more mature and serious work beneath all the teenagers-on-the-loose appearance. In fact, it's been a long while since Mr. Gondry has produced such a genuinely satisfying narrative feature, and it's all the more surprising that he has done so with such a modest, unassuming work.

Cast: Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn, Raymond Delgado, Jonathan Ortiz, Jonathan Worrell, Alex Barrios, Laidychen Carrasco, Meghan Murphy, Chenkon II Carrasco, Jacobchen Carrasco, Konchen Carrasco, Raymond Rios, Kenny Quinonez, Amanda Mercado, Manuel Rivera, Jillian Rice, Chantelle-Lisa Davis, BrandonDiaz, Luis Figueroa, Marlene Perez, Patricia Persaud, Carolina Noboa, Esmeralda Herrera, Justin McMillan, Elijah Canada, Shade Blanch, Marie E. Raphael, Alexis Davila, Kendrick Martinez, Patricia Collazo, Linda Collazo, Evonny Escoto, Nicole Janine, Jazmine Rivera, Darius Davis, Omar Mualimmak, Hector Maldonado, Mia Lobo
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenplay: Mr. Gondry, Jeff Grimshaw, Paul Proch
Cinematography: Alex Disenhof (colour)
Designer: Tommaso Orteno
Costumes: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Producers: Mr. Gondry, Julie Fong, Raffi Adlan, Georges Bermann (Partizan Films)
France/Great Britain/USA, 2012, 104 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 21st 2013


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