The We and the I is Michel Gondry’s gritty portrait of the emotional metamorphoses, shifting of loyalties, and struggles of friendship that befall a group of high school students on the last day of the year. This movie could easily be mistaken as being the narrative descendent of Richard Linklater’s 1993 film, “Dazed and Confused”, and please let the record show that such a lofty comparison is being made as a compliment.
But whereas that film followed typical white suburban students partying in a variety of locations in a small Texas town, The We and the I subjects are a racially diverse (but mainly black and Hispanic) set of Bronx, NY-based students taking the bus home from school one last time before summer vacation begins. However, despite some racial and cultural elements, ethnicity does not play a big thematic role in this film.
Gondry worked with local high school students, all of whom were first-time actors, that were essentially playing themselves. While it might be a gamble to not use tested actors with the talent required to work within the tight confines of a city bus, it paid off, as the characters were relatable, honest, and struck a balance between emotional vulnerability and the feeling of invincibility that all youngsters have.
The film’s fast, energetic pace commands your attention through inventive cinematography and fluidness in switching to and from the various groups of friends on the bus. Gondry shows amazing skill in filming the fights, pranks, and interactions in small quarters without any of the meaning being lost. But rather than be limited by the bus’s dimensions, the film is shot in a way that makes the bus look bigger than it actually is. With the pace of the film, perhaps Gondry is using this bus ride to show a microcosm of life in urban New York as a whole.
At the heart of The We and the I is the relationship between Teresa, the object of affection of many students at the school, and Michael, a boy whose desire to be the alpha dog is gradually chipped away at when we learn he has more emotional depth than he’d care to admit. The friends of these two all have their own problems, which are not limited to crushes on other students, and in typical high school fashion, they manage these feelings through bullying and jockeying for position on the social ladder. Teresa is in the middle of planning her Sweet 16 party guest list, and has no problem opening up her yearbook and crossing out the pictures of boys who didn’t make the cut, even if they might be sitting in the row behind her. Michael acts like a ‘don juan’, but secretly posed nude for a fellow female students’ portrait of him.
With that scene, told in one of the film’s many expository flashbacks, we are reminded that these students all attend a creative arts high school. Many of them spend the film attempting to woo girls through original songs, or drawing immaculate sketches of each other on the bus ride. Creativity is a form of emotional expression for these students, and many use it as a substitute for the feeling of actually being connected to someone.
While Gonry’s film is not without its flaws – perhaps the film could have slowed down a bit in the beginning to allow us to get to know the characters more – The We and the I is a more honest portrayal of high school students. Shots of the neighborhood outside of the bus show a group of kids trying to survive in a low socioeconomic neighborhood with no long term career prospects. This world, as sad as it may be, is a more interesting and truthful representation of teen-dom in America. Films about their white counterparts living in eternally sunny neighborhoods, with the only goal being to throw like, the most epic party ever, are often mindless entertainment, serving to placate viewers’ fantasies, and rarely deal with the actual issues these teens have.
However, The We and the I brilliantly shows that in a world where underprivileged students must fight for everything they have, they end up realizing all they have is each other.
Watch the trailer here. Opens in New York, March 8th and Los Angeles, March 22nd.