When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.
The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.
The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.
Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.