Being a teenager in America must be more delightful than being a teenager in Pakistan, right? But as “The We and the I” demonstrates with much insight and jarring eloquence, the American teen deal comes with its own pain. No, really. Handcrafted with loving care by French director Michel Gondry, “The We and the I” packs a universal message into a New York City Transit bus: It ain’t easy being young.
Gondry workshopped with nonactor kids for two months prior to shooting and pitches the tone somewhere between an exceptionally well-made home movie and a dramatized documentary. The story offers a window into the lives of a group of South Bronx high-schoolers, going home by bus on the last day of school before summer vacation — and the emerging view is fresh, spontaneous and wholly engaging.
“The We and the I” is a different animal from what we’ve come to expect from stories about inner-city school kids; no one’s in trouble or addicted or about to get involved in gangland warfare and none of the conversations are over-the-top emotional. Apparently, the mere fact of being 16 years old provides enough drama. Having endured several months of sitting in a classroom all day, the kids seem plain relieved to turn their back to the school and board the bus, each weighing up the months of freedom ahead with varying degrees of elated expectation.
It helps that they have their cellphones firmly in hand the equivalent to oxygen tanks for the modern teen. (These are retrieved from a makeshift storage locker run by the local grocer, since the school bans electronic devices from the premises.) The kids rush to grab their digital darlings like junkies reaching for a fix: Ahhhhh; they can breathe again.
If Gondry had drawn these young people as backpack-toting innocents we’d have to suspect an alien abduction, but no worries, he keeps it real. In one scene a kid strategically quirts a vanilla shake at a vocally racist older woman, just as she’s getting off the bus. Indignant gasp! But the incident is quickly forgotten. The conversation jumps around from guestlists at sweet 16 parties to eye-rolling jokes to relationship revelations. Did anyone mention profanity? Be prepared for shovelfuls of the stuff.
The overall mood shifts from exuberance to boredom to explosive joy, and finally winds down as the bus empties and the camera (maneuvered by Alex Disenhof) comes to rest on the loud, indefatigable Michael (Michael Brodie) and the pensive, artistic Teresa (Teresa Lynn). The pair have been on the periphery of the story, with Michael willfully playing dumb to get the attention of Teresa, who is frosty, apparently more interested in concentrating on her drawing.
While the pair are intriguingly cute (and you find yourself hoping they’ll hook up), the take-away here is the near total absence of a message at all. True to Gondry’s style, the film isn’t angry or judgmental or the least bit political. He just likes these kids, and is happy with leaving it that way, with the audience spending time together with them in a city bus. A rant-free film by a Frenchman, set in the Bronx? Gondry is definitely on to something.