Midway through the high-concept experimental drama The We And The I, two gay teenagers on a bus together have a raw, painful, relationship-redefining fight that leaves them both in tears. It’s a rivetingly intense moment, but it comes with a number of problems: It doesn’t make sense within the narrative, and it emerges from nowhere and dissolves into nothing. That’s because it’s an actual fight director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) captured between two of the teenagers who brainstormed and starred in the film as part of an afterschool arts program. As Gondry explained in a Film Comment interview, the two boys (Brandon Diaz and Luis Figueroa) were recreating their real-life relationship from two years previous, but playing each other in the film, to ease their tension and discomfort. Then Diaz broke down and admitted his real feelings to Figueroa—but as himself, rather than as his “Luis” character. So to work the scene into the film, Gondry inserted an earlier scene where one of the boys explains that they’re role-playing as each other as an empathy exercise. The wheels within wheels are dizzying and not particularly convincing—certainly not as convincing as the fight itself. And the way the fight is included regardless of narrative sense highlights the problem with The We And The I: Gondry is focused more on moments than on the film as a whole.
On paper, The We And The I has a terrific central hook: Virtually the entire story takes place on a Bronx bus, as a rowdy group of high-school students head home on the last day of school. When the packed bus first loads up, chaos dominates, with boys and girls flirting and showing off for each other, various social packs picking on anyone who looks weak, and a group of bullies victimizing peers and adults alike. But as the bus slowly empties, the manic energy fades, real conversations start, and people who knew better than to display vulnerability under the mob’s unforgiving scrutiny start making quieter overtures of friendship and trust. There’s a little Breakfast Club in the message and a little Before Sunrise in the freeform, talky execution, which follows conversation after conversation as daylight bleeds into night outside the bus. The situations came from the kids onscreen, who workshopped the script with Gondry, drawing from their actual lives, playing characters not far removed from themselves, and using their own first names. There’s plenty of drama—broken relationships, jealousy, cruelty, angst over an upcoming party, angst over a drunken lesbian kiss at a past party, angst over an attempted image-rehabilitation that didn’t work out, and much more. Many of the individual moments are terrific. It’s like Chain Camera with a built-in arc.
But as with any anthology, The We And The I has its weak points, and the whole is choppy. Some characters never come into focus. Gondry’s actors aren’t all skilled, and some deliver their lines with the flat, rushed aggression of awkward amateurs. There’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the first third, as the bully cadre casually chooses target after target. It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t overstate or overplay their menace, and it simultaneously sees them as they see themselves—just harmless kids killing time in a world of weak twerps and humorless, fun-quashing scolds—and as their prey sees them, as insensitive, powerful thugs. As they disperse, one of their number, Michael Brodie, comes into particular focus as a guy with a decent core who’s ready for a new social role, but finding it hard to escape his former friends and his peers’ expectations. But his thread is one among a profusion of weaker ones. There’s a lot to love about the film, but it can get buried under the attempts to tell everyone’s story at once. As Diaz and Figueroa’s gripping fight proves, the kitchen-sink approach has problems, even when it yields jaw-dropping results.