Directed by Michel Gondry.
2012. Not rated, 103 minutes.
Meghan Niomi Murphy
A group of Bronx high school kids ride the bus home after the last day of school. It's one of those impossibly long cross-town trips bound to lead to conflict, bonding, exploration, discovery, and realization. We listen in on the various conversations, great and small, that spring up throughout the course of their journey. They cover a wide range of topics. Basically, we get the full spectrum of teenage drama. And it's brilliant.
Like in most movies about kids of a similar age, there are a number of cliques present. However, what differentiates this from way too many of the others is that these aren't set up to infer some sort of social hierarchy. There is no group that rules over the others. These are just a bunch of kids who gravitate toward one another based on commonalities. The lines separating one group from the next aren't necessarily clear. They're blurred because they generally don't shun each other based on their group affiliations. There is tons of interaction between groups. This feels much more like the way real high school kids function. They have their closest friends, with whom they share the most similarities and/or chemistry. However, you also have friends and acquaintances of just about every type because you spend five days a week confined with these people for most of the year. The We and the I does a phenomenal job representing how kids interact without succumbing to the need to give us clear cut heroes and villains.
The free-flowing dialogue is a tremendous aid in the depiction of youth. It's both mature and immature, depending on who is speaking and/or the situation. It's often profane and vacillates between being playful, good-natured, mean-spirited, loud, hushed, poignant, imbecilic, and downright disgusting. And there are plenty of texts and videos making the rounds. As viewers, we bounce from one conversation to the next with the camera as nimble as the words somersaulting off tongues like divers, splashing onto the ears of everyone around. We're never bored because the conversations switch with some topics that linger while others go away. Maybe they come back. Maybe not.
However, The We and the I isn't completely formless. Though there is no plot to speak of, several storylines and themes take shape. They provide windows into the characters. We get to know a great deal about a few of them and at least a little about most of them. Chief among them is Michael (Brodie), one of the rowdy, bully types that sits at the back of the bus. Next is Laidychen (Carrasco) who is deciding on the guest list for her upcoming sweet sixteen party. Then there's Teresa (Lynn). We find out she hasn't been to school in quite some time, but shows up on the bus today. Also thrown into the mix are some music geeks, some full-of-themselves divas, an art geek, a gay couple, and eventually, a loner. Again, this is not to infer any power structure, just differing personalities. A quick note on the gay couple: the best part about them is that it's not a big deal to the other students that they're gay.
People familiar with New York City high schools understand that this ride home is not on a big yellow school bus, but on a regular city bus. This means there are a few adults scattered throughout the scenery. In a movie that would have been perfectly justified to entirely exclude grown-ups, save for the bus driver, there is a use for the ones we have. Most sit idly by and react with facial expressions the way us adult viewers might were we actually there. A couple can't help but be involved in the happenings because the dis involve them. One is an older lady that one of the knuckleheads at the back of the bus decides to mess with. Incidentally, she gives us the film's most cringe-worthy moment when she drops an unfortunate racial slur that feels completely forced, injected just for shock value and awkwardly delivered. However, she follows with a bit of comedy gold that happens on one of the rare moments off the bus. The other is the bus driver (Lobo). She's a woman who ends up taking both a disciplinary and a nurturing role over the course of the trip. She's the closest thing to a parent during this ride. She's clearly not one, at least of any of these kids, but gives them some sort of boundaries, however flimsy they may be.
Rest assured, adults play a very small role in The We and the I. This is all about the kids and their interactions with each other in a confined space. I'm guesstimating, but better than ninety percent on the movie takes place aboard this bus. Director Michel Gondry does a masterful job never letting us get that claustrophobic feeling. He does this by treating each of the smaller conversations as much like separate settings as possible. Each one is afforded their own angles. This give the characters speaking, and us as viewers, their deserved intimacy. Visually, it also affords us a different view of the bus's interior. Bouncing around to catch all the goings-on creates the illusion we're in a much larger space than we really are. This faux-vastness is also aided during those times when the smaller conversations give way to larger ones that involve multiple groups and occasionally the entire bus. When this happens we mostly get shots that run down the length of the bus rather than it's much shorter width. To further break up any monotony, there are also a few stories told that are accompanied by flashbacks, or a visualization of an outlandish lie in one case, that take place off the bus. Due to all of these techniques, our space is maximized. We're not fooled into thinking we're in some wide open landscape, but we don't feel trapped in a tiny, closed off portion of the world, either.
If I have fault with the director and the movie itself, it's that both feel unsure of it's ending. this is why we get a letter from a parent that serves as an epilogue. It tries to reinforce our sympathy for an event hat occurred just before some of the kids have gotten off the bus. Instead of doing giving it that extra oomph, this bit of exposition feels forced and extraneous which actually undermines the event itself. Had this moment been allowed to stand on its own, its impact would have been far greater. In art, it is almost always better to show rather than tell. It is almost never good to show AND tell. This is the sin committed by this little piece of the movie and it detracts from what is otherwise excellent. This excellence is in large part due to its earnestness. That earnestness is derived from the way the movie was made. The cast is made up of all real New York City kids who are first-time actors. What we see on the screen is the result of three years of them workshopping together on just this project. As a result, it is truthful to the way real kids behave. I don't mean every kid speaks and acts exactly like these kids. I mean they are most not socially organized into rigid pecking order and immobile class-lines. Sure, some of that goes on, but what winds up on the screen in most teen-movies is generally a serious exaggeration of reality. This is done to fit characters into whatever tropes filmmakers need to play out their story. Thankfully, this one doesn't do that.