Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know / *** (R)

Richard: John Hawkes
Christine: Miranda July
Peter: Miles Thompson
Robby: Brandon Ratcliff
Sylvie: Carlie Westerman
Michael: Hector Elias
Andrew: Brad Henke
Heather Natasha Slayton
Rebecca: Najarra Townsend
Nancy: Tracy Wright

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Miranda July. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for disturbing sexual content involving children and some language).

Have you ever felt like a character from one of those depressing slice of life independent dramas where everyone is so screwed up they could never hope to function in a happy Hollywood comedy of romance and sparkly enlightenment? Writer/director/ performance artist Miranda July certainly has, and her debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know is an expression of just how those depressing independent film characters can enjoy just piece of the happy life offered up by Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson performances.

Me and You… executes a strange sort of balancing act, teetering on the edge of one of those psychologically downgrading slice of life studies of human nature that make you feel most of the characters would be better off giving it all up, while somehow staying aloft as nearly a romantic comedy, where characters are actually capable of be both screwed up and happy. It is like a version of Todd Solondz’s film Happiness that is actually happy.

Like that indie favorite, Me and You…tells multiple stories with several character arcs centered on one family. Richard, played by Deadwood’s John Hawkes, has just ended his marriage, literally going down in flames. In a strange outcry, he lights his own hand aflame in front of his two boys, Peter (Miles Thompson, 13 Conversations About One Thing) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), as a ceremonial testament to the breakup of the family. Richard is a shoe salesman in the local mall and moves into an apartment complex with his boys in part time custody.

It is not long until Richard observes a customer at work who appears to have an outlook on life that matches the sensibilities of someone who would light his hand on fire to culminate the end of a relationship. Christine, portrayed by the film’s writer and director Miranda July (Jesus’ Son), is a driver for the elderly and a performance artist trying to get a gig at a local studio. She is not interested in the salesman so much as the honesty Richard seems willing to throw in about himself during his pitch, and soon the two are walking to their cars together living an entire lifelong relationship in the span of time it takes them to reach their parking spots.

Meanwhile Richard’s boys are experiencing all the internet has to offer, and in one of the film’s most humorous?… scary?… enlightening?… let’s just say effective scenes, the teen, Peter, teaches his little brother Robby, who is six, about internet chat rooms. After explaining how people like to pretend to be something they are not in these chat rooms, Robby quite innocently suggests a conversation subject that means something completely different to him than the sexual innuendo Peter understands it will be taken as in the chat room. As the film plays out the audience finds the character that encourages further input in this online conversation is someone who we are surprised to find involved in another portion of the plot.

Peter is getting his own sexual education from two girls, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), who have found themselves the objects of sexual obsession from an adult who is aware of the legal ramifications of cavorting with minors. This man happens to be Richard’s co-worker, Andrew (Brad Henke, North Country), and he finds a very clever way to fraternize with the girls without drawing undue attention to his solicitations. But Peter also finds a much more loving relationship with a neighbor girl named Sylvie (Carlie Westerman, A Cinderella Story), who has grand plans for her future.

Often times these ensemble pieces can be difficult as every life in them seems to be in such turmoil and upheaval, and this film is really no different on that front. Doom and heartache, depression and tragedy seem to knock at the door throughout, but somehow these characters seem to raise their own spirits above the cruelty of human existence. July imparts a unique outlook on that human existence in this film that I can’t say I’ve seen before, even in those indie ensemble flicks this one so often invokes. Her characters are all strange, but their quirks turn out to be positives rather than downfalls.

I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how good, or even great, this film is. This is one of those reviews where the critical constructs, like star ratings, make the discussion of a film more difficult. I personally wasn’t as affected by this movie as I expected to be, given the critical buzz surrounding its festival run and theatrical release; but I did enjoy it and cannot deny its originality. For people looking for a feel good indie effort, they may find the sense of dread that follows these characters around a distraction although none of the participants actually succumb to those darker leanings. For indie fans that have grown tired of the morbid tendency of these ensemble pieces to show just how terrible all of our lives actually are, they will find this a refreshing piece of original filmmaking from a woman who will most certainly be a major creative force in the independent film movement.

Another point I feel must be made about this film has to do with the explanation the MPAA gives for its “R” rating. “Rated R for disturbing sexual content involving children…” The “R” rating is earned and the reasoning behind it accurate, but what the word “disturbing” implies is dark and twisted which is something this picture delightfully avoids. Certainly I can think of many conservative public figures that will find the idea that children are even aware of sexuality a very disturbing thought; but the MPAA’s description leaves out the innocent nature in which these children explore their own particular, under-informed ideas of sex. The six year-old isn’t even actually talking about sex, it is only us perverted adults that see his ideas as sexual. And the teens are only trying to figure out this thing that has been presented to them as such an enigma that it can only be expected to pique their curiosity. The sexuality in this movie is more a statement on how adults view sex than some exploitation of the children involved, but the MPAA has always made it a point to confuse the issue of sex in ways that only encourage sex as a deviant activity rather than a normal one.

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