Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is the most original, charming, and visionary film I saw this year at the Sundance Film Festival. For whatever reason, the Dramatic Competition jury decided to honor it with a special prize, giving the top award to the inferior “Shades of Blue.” The film deservedly won the Camera d’Or at the Festival de Cannes.
That “Me and You” is made by a first time director, and a performance artist at that, makes it a double cause for celebration. There’s a spell of magic, a sense of wonderment, all over the film. Admirably open-minded, July seems to be captivated by other people and their respective lives.
Episodic, though not fragmented, “Me and You” interweaves the stories of half a dozen singular characters. The central male figure is Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), a newly single father of two who works as a shoe salesman. In the beginning, there is no communication between Richard and his sons; he’s a potential father. Richard doesn’t feels like a real dad; he doesn’t feel competent to play that role. July explores the idea that being a “father” is a risky role that needs to be learned, willingly. Adopting role theory (for those familiar with sociology), July shows that every role we play is an important part of moving through life.
Out of the blue, a young eccentric woman named Christine (Miranda July) enters Richard’s life. Christine is an artist but she makes a living as “Eldercab” driver. The captivating Christine vacillates between heartbreak and faith, as she weaves together what’s real and what’s fantastical in both her art and life. July seems to be saying that no matter how humdrum everyday life is, if youre open-minded and prepared for amazing things to happen, they will.
When Christine first gets into the car with Richard, he rejects her, because he is not ready to be “a lover.” As with his father’s role, Richard has to take a mental leap and train himself for that role. Fort July, the lack of any trust precludes people from having any kind of meaningful relationship, familial or romantic.
While their father is busy at work, the seven-year-old Robby is developing an Internet romance with a stranger (whose identity is revealed only at the end) by exchanging personal notes about the most bizarre topic: excrement (poop in the movie). It is a testament to July’s taste and artistry that the poop sequences not only steer clear from vulgarity, but also are also touching and amusing. Robby and his date’s meeting on a park bench is one of the film’s highlights and biggest surprises. Just note how humanely July handles this awkward situation, and how delicately she resolves its absurdity.
July said that, “all the stuff about the poop was completely familiar to Robby. If you don’t bring shame to it then its not there. This nonjudgmental, non-penalizing attitude marks Mirada’s approach toward all her characters’ deviance and eccentricities.
Robby’s fourteen-year-old brother, Peter (Miles Thompson), is forced to be the “impartial authority” in a test of sexual skills. Inflicted on him by his classmates Heather and Rebecca, the test involves an evaluation of the two girls’ relative performance of a blowjob. In this tough and sensitive scene, set in Peter’s bedroom, the three teenagers suddenly became their own clique. The film’s diverse sexual rituals (for boys and for girls) also make it an original coming-of-age tale.
Meanwhile, Peter develops a crush on his ten-year-old neighbor Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), who is a less aggressive suitor and reveals to him her private preparations for the future. Undaunted by anything, even in her high-stress situations, Westerman plays her difficult role with an unblinking face.
All of the characters seek community and togetherness. However, highly insecure, they choose indirect, tortured routes to connect with each other. In July’s world, people speak innermost thoughts to strangers, act on secret impulses, and yield moments that are sad, hilarious, and surreal. Each character arrives at a moment of shocking revelation and even more surprising redemption, be it via email, unexpected signals, and random moments that connect them to others.
“Me and You” was inspired by the longing that July experienced since childhood for the future, longing, as she said, “for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything.” The movie is informed by how this longing progressed as she became an adult, inevitably turning into a more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.
For those who are tired of the cynical and negative portrayal of American suburbanism (Todd Solondz has built a whole career around it), “Me and You” will come across as a breathe of fresh air. Indeed, freshness and hopefulness, but not the silly or facile kind, characterizes the entire film. Unlike Solondz, July creates embarrassing situations not in order to shock her audience, but to encourage a better understanding of themselves and their world.
July has a varied background in the arts, which, to her represent “one medium and one voice.” In “Me and You,” her live performances, short stories, radio-plays, and movies are different sides of her artistry, masterfully integrated. The film is marked by technical invention, a result of July’s experimenting with new ways to merge live performance art, film, video, and animation. “The part of me that makes movies is thinking big and wants to be in conversation with the whole world,” July said, and that’s a key to understanding her special movie.
Unified by a singular vision and coherent philosophy of life, “Me and You” is based on the way that writing, acting and directing complement each other in July’s work. As she explained: “When I’m writing, I’m actually acting out all the parts, saying the dialogue out loud, working out expressions and then transferring those ideas to paper. The writing process is very intuitive but also very solitary. But when I direct, I suddenly need other people, and try to make my collaborators feel as free as I felt in my room when I was writing.”
Surprisingly, working with child actors playing tough roles that involve sexual rites of passage brings out the tenderness in July and accentuates the maturity with which she treats her young characters.
The film takes its time to gain the audience engagement, and it also takes time in building its rhythm, which varies from scenes to scene, along with the tone. Cinematographer Chuy Chavez, who shot Miguel Arteta’s first films, complements July’s artistic vision. Except for some tricky scenes, July didn’t use shots lists or storyboards. She rehearsed the scenes on location with the actors, and then looked at them on a digital camera, a method that enabled her correct the blocking and composition of the images if they didn’t please her.
The film’s music creates a marvelous tone for the story. The score was produced on what composer Mike Andrews calls “democratic instruments” that anyone could play: Casio keyboards, vocoders, drum machines. By not using midi-sequencer, July and Andrews benefit from the “accidents” and unplanned aspects of the performances. Moreover, with the music coming out of rather cold instruments, the film’s blatant honesty is highlighted without making it maudlin.
At a time when most American indies are getting more genre-oriented, star-driven, and mainstream, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is highly personal film that does proud the Sundance Festival and the independent cinema.