On a recent episode of Filmspotting with Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, the duo reflected back on the films of 1993. This sparked a conversation on Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a much lauded picture that encapsulates the normative social behaviors of the youth of its time. A similar-minded picture came 20 years earlier in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. What’s captured in those two films is the essence of what it means to be a teenager in each specific era. What the Filmspotting crew posited is that there has yet to be a contemporary film released that captured the nuances in growing up as a teenager in the digital age. An era defined by technology and Facebook, has there been a film that truly captures the social interaction of youths with the finesse found in Linklater or Lucas’ work? Michel Gondry’s The We and the I, a film that details the interactions of urban New York teenagers riding the bus on their last day of school, serves as a worthy extension.
Loosely divided into three chapters, The We and the I is never encumbered by narrative structure. Even its confining environment - it’s for the most part set on a transit bus - rarely imposes itself on the naturalism on display. Rather, Michel Gondry’s fluid movement throughout the bus provides him with the sort of sampling size of youth that is ideal for understanding their tendencies and quirks. There’s no central character or a figurehead that we can latch on to. Most of the kids are difficult to embrace and often times overbearing. As bystanders get on the bus, we often see the children bully them off, commanding a sort of authoritative self-entitlement for their long ride home. And even amongst themselves, cliques and allegiance prove to be fundamental necessities in growing up in an urban landscape.
The sentiment against The We and the I, and perhaps why the film struggled to find any sort of distribution, is that it paints a very negative portrait of contemporary youths. With no emotional anchor to the picture (at least for more than half its runtime), and no clear-cut protagonist in sight, the film does expose urban teens as crass and fundamentally obnoxious. But were the kids in Dazed and Confused really any different? Was there not a glimpse into this sort of behavior back in 1993? I don’t think Gondry is attempting to make any grandiose statements that the onset of technology or the urbanization of culture has produced a slew of self-entitled brats, but rather that the behavior has always been there to begin with - he’s merely accenting this within the confines of a limited cinematic space.
Gondry’s skill as a bold visual stylist is already on record with efforts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. His flourishes in The We and the I are a little less obvious. He’s working in a confined space but someone manages to make it feel like a luxury bus through his swift cuts and fluid camera movement. The subtle touches he brings are a welcome surprise for someone who’s never been afraid to show his chops. The bus ride eventually runs a bit too long, but he even surprises by exacting a measure of sympathy for his characters. And it’s in his final sequence, where two teens mull over news that has been received via text that serves as the sort of commanding thesis on growing up in an urban environment in the now.