An AC Transit bus ride is, on most days, a boring and predictable way to travel from point A to point B for $2.10. Regular passengers know, however, that every now and then they’re going to experience one of “those” rides – the ones where your seat mate is in need of some serious grooming, the person behind you is sharing the most intimate details of their sex life via cell phone, and a gaggle of hormonally out-of-control middle-schoolers are busy inventing amazing new insults for one another while decorating their seats with Sharpees.
Judging from the bus ride in Michel Gondry’s new film The We and the I (opening Friday, Mar. 22 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), however, AC Transit ain’t got nothin’ on New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The kids of the MTA may not be any ruder or surlier than ours, but they certainly seem to have longer journeys to contend with. That’s not terribly good news for their fellow passengers.
Shot on location in the Bronx, Gondry’s film takes place after the end of the last school day before summer break. Set almost entirely aboard an MTA bus overflowing with kids relishing their new-found (if fleeting) freedom, The We and the I is a 90 minute-plus examination of the cruel and cutting ways of teens as they plan sweet 16 parties, clumsily negotiate relationships, and evince stone-faced disapproval from the few adult passengers along for the ride.
Traversing what seems to be the length and breadth of the Bronx, their bus rolls inexorably towards its terminus point, periodically disgorging passengers – and as it does, a strange transformation takes place. Dropping their masks and attitudes, the few remaining kids suddenly become thoughtful, empathetic human beings, and by the time the bus pulls away from the curb for the last time it’s clear we’ve only just begun to discover who they really are.
Despite some occasional nods to Gondry’s surreal sensibilities, this is the expatriate Frenchman’s most “realistic” film to date. The director, of course, will never be mistaken for Vittorio De Sica, and he probably didn’t run improv workshops to develop dialogue prior to shooting either Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Green Hornet (though the latter film probably would have been greatly improved if he had). It’s a writing strategy that pays off handsomely in The We and the I.
Unlike the vast majority of high school films, this one actually features a cast consisting primarily of high schoolers – in fact, almost everyone on screen is an amateur teen thespian. As might be expected the acting is inconsistent, but a few cast members – including star Michael Brodie as one of a trio of back-of-the-bus troublemakers and Meghan Murphy as a reluctant party planner – bring enough to the table to suggest they could, if they wish, have a future in show biz.
As with Gondry’s thoroughly bonkers Be Kind Rewind, there’s a distinctly ’80s vibe around this film: despite being set firmly in the now, it features an old school hip-hop soundtrack (including several cuts by straight-edge rapper Young MC) and a remarkable remote control bus fashioned into a boom box (or is it the other way around?). The We and the I is roughly analogous to a John Hughes brat pack movie, and despite their frequently rotten behavior one doesn’t really get the impression these are Bad Kids. Perhaps a Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo style dance-off would set them on the straight and narrow for good.
Footnote: despite being set during the height of summer, The We and the I’s bus ride ends after dark. Assuming school gets out around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, this suggests some students contend with a six-hour ride both to and from school. Perhaps Gondry’s just playing with us, or perhaps New York City buses simply don’t run on time.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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