[23 September 2013]
Early in 2013, the Bronx was having a moment—and a shining one at that. When filming the borough, there’s a tendency to make the characters, as director Adam Leon describes, “always miserable”. But these two Bronx-based movies show a lighter side of the borough, without whitewashing its rougher edges.
Both films get their energy from focusing on young people. In the case of The We and the I, it’s a whole mess of young people: The film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a Bronx city bus on the last day of school. Students pile in and immediately fill it with their chaos, tormenting the other riders, tormenting each other, and generally behaving the way a horde of teenagers behaves after the last school bell has tolled. We get snippets of insight into their lives through their conversations and interactions, but once the characters’ stops are reached, they drop out of the story for good.
Gimme the Loot also focuses on younger people spending their free time outside of school, but the focus is much narrower. The movie stays with Sophia and Malcolm, two friends and graffiti-writers in the Bronx on an unusual mission. Tired of having their graffiti constantly defaced by rival artists from Queens, the pair vow to take revenge by leaving their marks on the Mets’ famed home-run apple inside Citi Field. They know a guy who will let them into the stadium after-hours for $500, so they spend a day trying to raise the money the best ways they know how: selling pot and fencing stolen goods.
Sophia and Malcolm sound like little miscreants—vandals, thieves, and petty criminals—but while they have a toughness about them, they’re actually quite charming, especially when they’re together. There’s an unexpected sweetness to them that make them easy to spend day with, rooting for them to make their $500 goal.
Of course, they suffer setbacks. But while raising $500 in one day proves harder than Sophia and Malcolm originally expect, nothing that happens to them can be considered a tragedy. (Many of their obstacles, actually, are quite comedic.) Leon fully achieves his goal of setting a movie within the Bronx that doesn’t have a miserable, defeatist cloud hanging over the action. Whether or not Sophia and Malcolm achieve their goal of “bombing the apple”, they’re going to be okay—if a little more ragged for the wear.
It’s clear that Leon considers it a personal movie. In his commentary, which his co-filmmakers drop in and out of at varying points, he discusses how certain elements of the story are rooted in his Bronx upbringing. Many of the actors in bit parts are people he’s known since high school. A great many others are regular Bronx residents he persuaded to be in the movie—for example, the man playing the owner of a pizza shop really is the owner of that pizza shop, doing what he does on a normal day.
Leon’s commentary mentions that there was only one location shot outside the city. (It also gives a recommendation for his favorite falafel shop.) The DVD also comes with an episode of All City Hour, a cable access show invented for the movie (though it’s as entertaining as watching real cable access). With the film, Leon wants to show the Bronx that he grew up in, and that authenticity shines through.
Authenticity is also paramount for The We and the I, though it doesn’t feel as personal for Gondry. His film, on the other hand, is more of a vehicle for other people’s stories. He’s mentioned in interviews that the film was written in collaboration with students from The Point, an after-school program in the Bronx.
He had an outline for a script, then conducted long interviews with the kids to hear about their lives and experiences in their own words. Many of the conversations found their way back into the script, and the students found themselves playing characters with the same first names, based on themselves and their friends.
It’s a shame that none of this background information made its way onto the DVD, which is entirely devoid of features. There’s no director commentary to explain the film’s origins, or even any behind-the-scenes information about the movie’s inspiration. The only snippet you get outside the film is a mid-credits reading of an email from the mother of some of the actors, going into more detail about an anecdote that pops up in the movie. Her email on its own in pretty funny, and it gives a deeper appreciation for the way the anecdote is used in the film, so more DVD features (or any DVD features) would’ve been an asset.
But Gondry is able to accomplish much without them, especially with his collaborating cast at his disposal. His high school students look, talk, and behave like real teenagers, acting out the very real group dynamics that happen in those kinds of unstructured environments.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for any of Gondry’s typical magic. Outside the bus is a heightened version of the Bronx. The bus line, the BX66, is fictional, and wends its way through an unreal landscape. As the bus travels, the sun sets, going from mid-afternoon to twilight to mood-setting evening.
As daylight wanes, the mood in the bus becomes heavier. One by one, students reach their destinations and exit the bus. The real story of the movie takes shape and emerges as the remaining riders pare down. The antics and hijinx that mark the beginning of the film give way to something more serious, and it’s fascinating to watch how the movie develops as it goes on.
The We and the I (2012)
It’s also interesting to see the way the two films approached their soundtracks, seemingly from opposite directions. Gimme the Loot‘s soundtrack—which features many original songs by Nicholas Britell—has some hip-hop and raggaeton, but more often reaches back to older-sounding jazz, blues, gospel, and soul music. The unexpected choices underline Leon’s urging to look at the Bronx in a new way.
Since The We and the I takes place in a more fantastic version of the Bronx to begin with, it uses music as a bridge to the real-life history of the area, with more typical song selections by Young MC, Slick Rick, and Run DMC. Perhaps the most Gondry-esque thing about the movie is its opening, which features a miniature, radio-controlled bus electronically wired with boombox speakers—dare we call it a Sweded jambox?—blaring “Bust a Move”.
Heightened or not, there’s much joy to be found in the exuberance of these two movies. Together, they show that the Bronx might deserve a second look.