Michel Gondry often synthesizes the technically modest with the logistically intricate. In films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, as well as documentaries and music videos, he likes to employ old-fashioned, handmade visual tricks to convey emotions not easily described. In The We and the I, Gondry uses fewer of his visual signatures, but he still mashes together simplicity and complexity. To tell a story about teenagers, he takes recognizable teen-movie formats (like the short time-frame and wide cross-section of The Breakfast Club or Dazed and Confused), then applies (and limits) them to a single New York City bus full of actual Bronx teenagers.
The We and the I, produced in collaboration with these teenagers as an extension of Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind-inspired community movie projects, begins at the end of the last day of school. Dozens of kids from a Bronx high school hop on the (fictional) BX66 bus and begin their journey home and into the summer. We see cliques, outsiders, exes, and enemies packed together, staking out their territories.
The clamor and the sheer number of characters could turn overwhelming, but Gondry’s fluid cutting makes the introductions surprisingly breezy, capturing the group’s ebb and flow. Organization comes from the movie’s clear framework: when a character leaves the bus, he or she disappears from the narrative as soon as the vehicle pulls away. As such, a gregarious character like Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell) seems like he may figure heavily into the story, but his stop comes early, while some of the quieter kids reveal themselves as the bus gradually empties out. Only the gangly Elijah (Elijah Canada) appears from outside the bus route, via a cellphone video of him slipping on a butter-greased floor, his plotline expanding throughout the day with more grainy videos of his further adventures.
There are non-teenagers riding the bus, too, but only the driver (Mia Lobo) gets anything resembling a word in edgewise. New Yorkers in particular may recognize the raucousness and heedlessness of kids taking over public transportation, hassling each other or even strangers, testing and breaking the limits of their youthful bravado. Gondry doesn’t avoid this unpleasantness, sometimes bordering on monstrousness, of teenagers traveling in a pack. When Michael (Michael Brodie) and his best friends in the back of the bus reach out to harass their classmates, the acts waver from careless pranks into active, intentional cruelty. At one point, one kid grabs another’s guitar and smashes it, because he’s sick of hearing his music. The moment recalls the famous one when John Belushi performed a similar act in Animal House, only here the meanness is in full view.
Yet even the film’s meanest characters have moments of empathy and comedy that recall touchstones like The Breakfast Club—without that movie’s glib faux uplift. In one of the movie’s main threads, Teresa (Teresa Lynn) has returned to school for the last day of the year following a mysterious month-long absence, and takes back her usual place with Michael and his buddies in the back, despite obvious hostility on both sides. In just one row of seats, Gondry and his teenage actors—occasionally and understandably stiff when given longer passages of dialogue, but largely remarkable—generate countless permutations of hurt feelings and broken promises, masked with false confidence and comic insults. And that’s only among the movie’s less likable characters.
With all of these hormones loose in such a small space, you might expect The We and the I to grow claustrophobic, but the movie, shot largely in unobtrusive handheld, feels remarkably expansive. Even potential cheats on the movie’s one-location limitation—off-bus cutaways to cover flashbacks and brief fantasies—deepen the characters by showing us their more playful, sometimes childlike sides. In those scenes, Gondry makes sparing use of his personal style: when a kid tells a long, elaborate lie about his night of partying with Donald Trump, we see his imagined nightclub in homemade-looking sets and cartoonish drinks that could have come from the director’s low budget music videos, and when another kid wishes aloud that his art teacher would drop his cigarette and catch on fire, we see the teacher engulfed in cardboard flames.
These touches take up perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the movie; initial reports, probably erroneous, described a more recognizably Gondry-ish film, about kids traveling into the future by mistake and discovering some kind of youth-preserving machine. Whether the project evolved away from that concept or never actually touched it, the film here engages in a more subtle form of time travel. The bus trip unfolds in what appears to be more or less real time, but the route also stretches from the brightness of midday into the dark of night: for New York in June, this would span at least five hours. During this fluctuating time and space, some of the characters make and discard a summer’s worth of plans. Michael, in particular, goes through changes at least partially due to who’s sitting beside him.
It all adds up to a beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of teenage psychology, social and otherwise. This kind of attention to the realities of adolescence is too rare in movies. If The We and the I springs less directly from the director’s psyche than, say, The Science of Sleep, this small-scale collaboration with a bunch of smart kids feels, as it rolls along, more and more like one of his finest accomplishments.