When elder cab car driver/aspiring performance artist Christine (Miranda July) accompanies elderly Hector (Hector Elias) to the local department store to buy a pair of sneakers, she meets down-on-his-luck, recently separated Richard Swersy (John Hawkes). Richard is the salesman, recently separated from his wife. After noting Christine’s bruised ankle, the ill effect of wearing bad shoes, Richard turns to her and says, poignantly, “You think you deserve that pain. But you don’t.” Though it might sound sentimental, even corny, such dialogue reveals complex truths in Me and You and Everyone We Know, co-winner of this year’s Camera d’Or at Cannes.
Written and directed by performance artist July, the movie maintains a delicate balance between irony and sincerity. When Christine drives Hector home from the department store, she sees a goldfish in a bag literally floundering on the roof of a car on the highway. She mourns for the fish, relaying to Hector her anxiety over its impending death. As the scene unfolds in slow motion, the bag bounces from one car and finally lands on the roof of another before that car jerks suddenly and the bag falls to the ground.
Christine’s face reflects her pain; but while her vulnerability is poignant, it’s not unique to her. In the opening scene, as Richard’s wife Pam (Jonell Kennedy) is leaving him, he runs to his kids’ room and asks, “If you didn’t know me, would you think I was a normal guy with a wife and kids?” Teenaged Peter (Miles Thompson) and six-year-old Robbie (Brandon Ratcliff), look at him uneasily. And with that, Richard heads outside, where he lights his hand on fire, his sons staring at him through the window. It seems that everyone is desperate in this film, but ultimately redemption and love win out.
At school, Peter is most attracted to the pensive Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), who keeps a hope chest and dreams of some day having a daughter to whom she can say all the things her mother can’t say to her. “I will tell her she’s a precious gift,” Sylvie says with a tear in her eye, lying on her bedroom carpet next to Peter. They gaze up into the camera that hovers above, envisioning a world where they can never be hurt and aren’t forced to be adults at such a young age.
Richard’s coworker Andrew (Brad Henke) is differently troubled by age expectations, as he’s an adult behaving like a child. He likes to flirt with sexually provocative teens Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), leaving dirty notes on his window instructing them to kiss and lick one another, when the girls knock on his door ready to call his bluff, he cowers inside, afraid to act on his apparent desires. In the department store, Andrew listens to Richard’s fear of being alone: “When Pam and I first met, we’d lie in bed all day.” Andrew assumes that Richard is referring to sex, but Richard corrects him. “No, we would just sleep together like babies.” The men understand each other at last, as Andrew replies, “Yeah, that is beautiful.” This brief interaction — suggesting at once innocence and yearning — reveals the film’s delicate capacity to convey mixed emotions, to allow for nuance and possibility.
It’s in this context that Richard’s relationship with his sons anchors the film. While we never really know what went awry in his marriage, we see that he’s not a model father. He’s just average and that’s what makes him all the more extraordinary. When Richard sees his kids silently protesting him, he can’t hide his desperation; sometimes you wish he would hide it, at least a little. He’s raw and discomforting. Left to their own devices while their father is working (which is most of the time), Peter and Robbie are exposed to the pitfalls of the internet, an exposed and also detached form of human connection.
Perhaps the most disturbing and yet comedic scene involves Peter and Robbie’s online chat with someone who thinks her correspondent is her age, that is, an adult. Robbie instructs Peter to type: “Say, ‘You poop into my butthole and I poop into your butthole… Back and forth… Forever.'” When Robbie finally meets his online paramour on a park bench at the end of the film, the scene manages to escape the pitfalls of anything remotely sketchy or awkward (though she is shocked to see him), but is instead strangely moving.
Waiting on the bench, Robbie watches a man tap a nickel on a metal sign, as the man waits for his bus. Maybe, this quiet, unforced moment suggests, we are all just passing the time here on earth. But if Me and You and Everyone We Know teaches us anything, it’s that life’s tender intricacies and ironies can bring us closer to one another, and to some form of happiness. Passing time won’t suffice. Happiness emerges in action, some effort to reach out.