François Truffaut once said that the most important quality for a filmmaker is to retain his inner child. In that sense, Michel Gondry fits the bill almost to a fault. The auteur behind such endearing tales as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind, Rewind,” Gondry seemingly keeps his childlike sense of self in a vaulted safe that he dips into at will and latches safely shut again.
“From a very early age, I was into personal relationships and personal space,” he tells The Japan Times. “I avoided being part of a group, it made me uncomfortable. Two people were great, but three was a problem: I saw that people changed when the number got bigger than three; things got political after that. In our house, we were three brothers, and that was the reason for all the fighting — though not all the time.”
At 49, Gondry has a distinct and perceptive knack of capturing the facial expressions, conversations and emotions of young people (or the young at heart, such as Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine” and Jack Black in “Be Kind Rewind”), and this is regardless of whether the kids are from his home country of France, from New York (Gondry’s adopted city) or, in the case of the segment he directed in the omnibus movie “Tokyo!” in 2008, Japan. He likes vulnerability, under-confidence, little insecurities that people try to hide.
And then he’ll emerge with what may be described as the cinematic equivalent of a school project, engineered by a genius fifth-grader. The adults around him will receive this with applause and delight, mixed with just a little chagrin. (As is usually the case with school projects.)
Witness the opening scene in his latest, “The We and the I,” in which a bus-shaped boom box zigzags its way down a street in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough, which in reality is recovering from decades of economic neglect to ditch its reputation as one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The craftsy, giddy, made-in-summer-camp spirit of this scene is pure Gondry and can leave the viewer awe-struck and confused at the same time. Imagine having Gondry over for a cocktail party. The other guests may find themselves a little at a loss in dealing with the man but no doubt your children would be all over him.
All of this has served him well in “The We and the I,” a dramatized documentary about a bunch of Bronx high-schoolers taking the bus home on their last day of school before summer vacation. Nothing much happens, but the story is somehow engrossing, drawing the viewer into the very real (but acted out) conversations of the group of 16-year-olds. Ever hear of a “water bra?” You’ll find out all about it here.
“The We and the I” is probably the most accurate and least judgmental portrayal of inner-city American teenagers. In another filmmaker’s hands, the material could have gone political with a vengeance — but Gondry being Gondry, politics is for boring grownups. In one scene, the bus driver (Mia Lobo) turns around to one of the kids (Teresa Lynn) to recommend a career in the United States military and the girl walks away, without bothering to hear the end of the sentence. Similarly, the kids express no interest in the fact that the gay couple sitting among them are gay, but they are interested in the fact that they the two boys are a couple, clearly in love and immersed in couple issues.
Decades after his own adolescence has passed, Gondry says that working with teenagers — both in France and the U.S. — has always been easy for him, and there are no communication snags. With “The We and the I,” as soon as the kids knew what Gondry was trying to do and the world he was trying to construct on-screen, they became willing accomplices. “The kids were incredibly polite and focused,” he says. “They had a lot of patience and enthusiasm.”
Gondry says of his own high school days, “I was hanging out with girls a lot more than the boys. I thought boys were kind of stupid. Unfortunately this alienated me from having a girlfriend, so I had to change and pretend to be more of a boy than I actually was — in order to get the girls!”
This sounds much more civilized and privileged than anything that goes on in the movie’s bus, but Gondry says he tried to concentrate on the “similarities that American teenagers have with other teenagers,” including the French kids he knew when he was that age. Still, Gondry knows there is a rift: “One thing that is evident is that kids in the Bronx don’t have a second chance. They know it and behave differently from kids who have parents who will bail them out.”
Just as with its beginning, the end of the bus ride in “The We and the I” is emblematic. The bright summer afternoon melts into dusk, the bus empties and a boy and a girl are left among the last handful of passengers. He had been clowning around, trying to get her attention. She had played it cool, drawing in her notebook. In Gondry’s words, the most beautiful and vulnerable thing about being in high school is “the friendship between a girl and a boy.” By this point in the movie, you’ll start believing that’s true.
For a chance to win one of two exclusive “The We and the I” T-shirts (in L and S sizes), visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is May 7.