Friendships between females can be bizarrely close unions, free of emotional barriers, full of intimacy—and liable to break apart at a moment’s notice, with devastating effects. Writer/director Sandra Goldbacher’s era-jumping Me Without You is a disquieting and stunningly accurate depiction of just such a relationship.
The movie opens in 1973 London. Holly (Dawson’s Creek‘s Michelle Williams), a Jewish bookworm who fancies herself a plain Jane, and Marina (Anna Friel), a free spirit with a mean streak and an outlandish sense of style, are whiling away the hot summer days. They dub themselves “Harina,” half-Holly, half-Marina, chanting the name as they scribble it onto a piece of paper, fold it into an empty Charlie perfume bottle, then send it floating away on a backyard pond. Their names blended for eternity (or as long as the Charlie bottle stays intact), they are the perfect girl. But their symbolic unity is hampered by Marina’s need to overshadow her chum.
The girls experience life with and through one another, both alienating and stunting each other, but unwilling to let go, perplexing the men in their lives. Self-absorbed Marina uses Holly as a crutch, someone she can turn to when her pill-popping mother (a game Trudie Styler) and absentee dad (Nicky Henson) get to be too much to bear. It’s less clear why Holly stays. Granted, her mother’s unwillingness to see the beauty in Holly—constantly making note of her homeliness next to Marina’s attractiveness—might have muddled her mind enough to make her unable to discern good from bad, but mostly it’s her undying crush on Marina’s older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn) that prevents her from bidding her pal a not-so-fond farewell.
Next door neighbors throughout their childhoods, Holly and Marina share the kind of connection that most little girls crave and never find. Still, their bond is atypical in the sense that it is beneficial for neither, causing Holly to feel unpretty and Marina to doubt her intellect. As they grow older, their differences become more apparent and harder to ignore. While they clearly love each other dearly, they are like a couple doomed for failure, headed for divorce court.
Other recent female buddy pics, such as Crush, have highlighted the cattiness that traditionally passes for women’s friendships. Me Without You recognizes that the girls’ pain is born of their genuine mutual love. They don’t want to sabotage each other. They just can’t seem to break the cycle once it’s begun. Neither pays their newfound estrangement any mind until one fateful night when Marina goes off to sample heroin for the first time at a house party and returns to find Holly losing her virginity to Nat. Neither is able to forgive the other.
While Me Without You focuses equally on the two girls, Marina is clearly the “you,” ripping up a note her brother writes to Holly after their surprising night of passion and seducing an American tutor (a boyishly manipulative Kyle McLachlan) whom she knows Holly likes. Jealous of her best friend’s affable nature and average life, Marina will stop at nothing to destroy her happiness, all the while ingratiating herself to Holly, ensuring that she is the sole cause of any joy she might experience. Similarly jealous of Marina’s avant-garde existence, Holly kowtows to her friend’s woeful whims, afraid to be the voice of dissension, afraid to raise her voice at all.
Marina is the flashier role—her frequent hair color and wardrobe changes have a somewhat dizzying, but ultimately pleasing effect—but Williams has more to do, showing an emotional range rarely asked of her in her role as Jen Lindley. Goldbacher deftly portrays their increasingly complex bond, chronicling their lives from early 1970s giggling to their less girlish explorations in the present era. Williams and Friel share the kind of nonsexual chemistry that is a casting director’s dream and each inhabits her role completely—becoming bookish, becoming selfish, and in Williams’ case, becoming British.
Me Without You tells a familiar tale. Holly and Marina are the girls we all observed in high school, the ones who huddled together by the lockers or shared a contraband cigarette beneath the bleachers, the ones who coveted the same guys and wore the same clothes and rarely looked to others for companionship. They are the ones we longed to know, but never did. We do now. Neither girl is evil, neither is good. They are people, plain and simple—flawed and beautiful, brash and wonderful. Me Without You shows that the suffocating friendships we lived vicariously through our classmates need not continue indefinitely. A friendship is not a prison. Loneliness is a small price to pay for the ability to breathe.