Michel Gondry’s muse has led him all over the creative map, gifting to him an oeuvre that’s as densely packed as the visuals and set pieces in his films and videos. For this reason, it’s tough to come to any concrete explanation for what, precisely, his film The We and the I — which takes place almost entirely in one setting (an MTA bus in the Bronx after the last day of school), and features teenage non-actors essentially playing themselves — means in terms of an aesthetic shift for the director. In one of the movie’s first scenes, a remote-control toy bus is crushed by the aforementioned real vehicle, which Gondry has acknowledged as a possible metaphor: “The small bus is my usual style, and the big bus is the reality I’m going to focus on this time.” But is that really what we’re meant to take away from the scene? “I can’t remember. I don’t think so. I think it was just something funny I threw in.”
The same attitude that is at least partially responsible for Gondry’s prolific and inventive body of work makes it feel a little silly to scrutinize him. As the bus in The We and the I travels its route, characters, some with whom we’ve only been briefly acquainted, take their leave, saying goodbye to their peers and disappearing into the disconnected aloofness of summer vacation. Is this a meditation on a familiar feeling? Or is it a story construct necessitated by actors dropping out of the project throughout its production? Due in no small part to the director’s earnest desire to entertain and create, analytic quandaries and ponderous dialogue never manage to bog the film down. This, as well as an effective use of cellphone footage and other lo-fi video, projects a sense of inclusion and self-containment; it feels as though we’re watching a film shot by one of the teenagers on the bus, starring at all his or her friends.
That said, The We and the I isn’t entirely a “take-it-or-leave-it” piece. Gondry isn’t the first to use non-actors in a story-driven feature, or even the first to use teenage, inner-city, New York non-actors in this way. And to that end, he’s not exactly the most compelling, either. There are more than a few stunning and subtle successes, such as the charming opening scene, in which the viewer is deftly introduced to a small army of characters, all of whom seem funny and grounded in their world. But the more we learn about this little community and the more their lives are molded into a story, the hokier the final product becomes. There’s so much territory to cover, so many confessions to be made and twists to be encountered, that the surprisingly elaborate plot takes over, and the characters become vessels for narrative, which all leads to a truly baffling finale.
In spite of any shortcomings, though, the film rolls along, much like its central vehicle, and it’s hard to be too put off by individuals who are likely to step out at any second. On the last day of school, petty irritation tends to give way to forgiveness and optimism, which is a tonal and thematic touchstone of The We and the I. Michel Gondry is able to imbue a sense of innocence in his obnoxious, foul-mouthed subjects, and successfully weave them into this idyllic concept. However, there’s a little too much focus on wrapping things up before the final destination, by both the characters and their director, and in the end, everyone might have done something that only felt right in the moment.