The We and the I
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Keith Bunin and Michel Gondry
Starring: Michael Brodie, Teresa Rivera, Laidychen Carrasco, Jonathan Ortiz
Run Time: 103 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
As the byline at the bottom of this page suggests, I am a film reviewer at Culturevulture, a gig I’ve had for seven years now. But my day job, my real job for the last year, is as a high school teacher at an Oakland public school. This day job is very exhausting, to say the least, so I don’t review much these days.
Still, I take on films now and then, and the subject of “The We and the I”—what inner-city teenagers are really like—felt too close to home to resist. What could Mr. Gondry tell me about inner-city teenagers that I don’t already know, I wondered? Would the movie give me some much-needed insight? Would it enlighten me? Would it, dare I hope, inspire me?
Not a chance. “The We and the I” is such an authentic look at the disadvantaged youth of today that even I, a high school teacher, was aghast at how they treat each other outside of the classroom. They’re as mean and cruel and screwed up with each other as they are with their teachers in school. Okay, I exaggerate. They’re even worse than in school.
One might wonder at my decision to explore a stage of life that, frankly, I already spend a good portion of my waking life trying to understand and cope with, and inevitably find so debauched that I come home from school each day like a shell of a human. Should I even review this film, when I already find myself locked in a psychic battle with myself between wanting to help these poor adolescents and wanting to strangle them?
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but bear with me as I pick up my red pen and try to give this film its proper due. It helps my perspective that Gondry—a Frenchmen with a keen eye on our youth culture—chose to set the film outside of the schoolroom. It starts, in fact, on the last day of another school year; the first scene is of kids rushing out of an unnamed high school in the Bronx (could there be a better place to explore this new generation of mixed-race youth, many living in poverty or its borders?). That’s the last we see of the school and its teachers, looking haggard as the prison is emptied of its inmates. The rest of the film takes place on a fictitiously named city bus filled with a certain fraction of the student body, about twenty kids taking their last long bus ride home before the summer break. Comparisons with “The Class,” Laurent Cantet’s brilliant pseudo-doc about a year in a Parisian middle school classroom—which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008-— are inevitable, considering the milieu addressed, and the casting of real non-professsionals in the roles of the young characters. But the comparisons end there; in “The We and the I”, there isn’t a teacher in sight to give this film a teacher perspective. “The We and the I” focuses only on the kids themselves—the “we” and yes, the “I” of the title, since this is about kid culture and kids fighting to keep their identity within that culture. Here, the kids are freed from the constraints of the imposed social contract with teachers, or any adults for that matter. And, without teachers, parents, adults of any kind (except the bus driver and a few unfortunate adult passengers), the French-born Gondry shows us—in a manner that is so non-judgmental that it borders on gleeful admiration—exactly how the kids really are. The result is raw, unadultered adolescent-driven chaos.
Feeding all this chaos are two conflicting desires—the longing to fit in and the desire to stick out. And this ultimately leads, in these kids’ minds, to interacting with each other through harassment, or by withstanding it. There is not a single kid on that bus who is not the perpetrator or the victim of some form of bullying (cell phones are big weapons these days), and they all seem to know the game so well that there is never a time when anyone decides enough is enough. One kid does get off the bus early on to escape this unruly mess, but we wonder how long it will take him to get home on foot. It’s the unwritten law of the jungle (snitches get stitches)—you either take it on the chin, bury yourself in your own graphic novel depictions to hide from the slings and arrows, or get comeuppance where you can, in the form of mean-spirited texts and verbal insults, more bullying, whatever it takes. In any case, this is the only life these kids have, so living it means braving it. By the time the last kids leave the bus, it’s amazing that any amount of moral integrity is left at all. But, amazingly, there is. The kids may be nasty to each other, feelings have been hurt, guitars broken and clothes smeared with gum, but not a single person has left the bus with any real physical harm.
There is one school kid in this film who doesn’t survive, but he’s not on the bus, and his fate devolves in a series of interspersed edits that seem to be Gondry’s way of saying that kids’ lives are at even more at risk in the adult world. It’s a true statement, and it makes us feel sympathetic towards these poor half-adults, who seem to intuit what they’re heading for; they know it’s going to be rough. Maybe all this bullying is to help them when they reach that point when a tough skin is what they will need to survive.
Still, I wish it weren’t so. I saw this movie and ached for all the girls who had to endure the sexual come-ons and put downs, and all the boys who had to keep their mouths shut when they were taunted by the bullies who hid their own insecurities behind a group mentality. This is the way it is, all you upper-middle-class adults looking for a glimpse at the real world, with your upper-middle class kids who have been well-trained to keep their own teenage shenanigans hidden beneath a veneer of self-discipline and respect for authority, but deep down, are still pretty much the same. It’s just that on a city bus, the game is dirtier, the stakes higher, and the fall-out much worse.
Fortunately for us all, “The We and the I” contains a few uplifting scenes of teens actually interacting with sympathy and care towards each other. It doesn’t feel tacked on. I see it all the time at school. These kids do feel compassion, they do show signs of humanity, especially when they are one on one and the group ethic fades. They really just want to be loved and accepted for who they are. These rare moments are how they manage to survive, I’m sure, and it’s how I manage to survive as a teacher. But then, a new day begins all over again.
Every morning, I head towards school thinking that, yes, even I can make a difference in these kids’ lives, a belief that has all but dissipated once the second period bell rings. But “The We and the I” has given me a glimpse of what these kids endure every day, outside of my classroom, and it makes me realize I’m not the only one being picked on, ridiculed and taunted. At least I can go home and call it a day. I guess, then, this film has, in some small way, enlightened me.