A Bronx tale of casual cruelty among a bus full of teenagers, The We and the I is the third in French director Michel Gondry’s series of New York “neighborhood films”. Be Kind, Rewind was a nostalgic fantasy of the VHS era. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was a documentary about the intersection of fame, fandom and old-fashioned fun. Among them, The We and the I is probably the most authentic to everyday New York life, the plot having been developed by Gondry and local high school students at The Point, a community nonprofit arts program.
The large cast of inexperienced young actors were drawn from the program, and the performances, as you might expect, are uneven. But if you can look beyond this, with the help of an excellent soundtrack and some Gondryesque flights of invention, you’ll find a rather profound story of how a mass of stereotyped ‘we’ gradually devolves into a humanized ‘I’.
It’s the last day of school. The bus is sub-divided into various cliques – bullies, musicians, artists. The young people pass the time by pulling pranks and telling tall tales (flashback scenes of which are inventively filmed by Gondry in a low-rent style). As someone who once taught high school students in New York City, the raunchy dialogue rings bell-true.
The joy of the film is the small surprises, including which of the characters ultimately become central to the story. I love the ratio of originality to budget. This is a movie that should be closely watched by every independent filmmaker looking to capture local color and tell a story without breaking the bank. I wish Gondry had a better ear for line readings, or the time to really coach some of the weaker performances. But I can’t fault the spirit of him and his collaborators. They tell a story that is specific to their own time and place, but which manages to be universal.