Michel Gondry made a name for himself with quirky music videos and later, quirky movies written by Charlie Kaufman. But with only a few stage-setting exceptions, his quirky signature is missing from The We and the I, a high-school drama set almost entirely on a bus. Who knew Gondry had such a humanist streak in him?
A bus-shaped boom box blasts out Bust a Move as the students at a Bronx school retrieve their coat-checked cell phones, then board a city bus to go home after the last day of school. There is a bus driver, and one or two adult passengers, but the dozens of high schoolers outnumber the adults and their raucous culture overwhelms any authority the adults might otherwise wield. The We and the I is like an urban Lord of the Flies.
The first episode in the film is called “The Bullies.” And indeed the students show some shocking disrespect to each other and to complete strangers. A passenger with a harelip gets mocked mercilessly by the kids. An older woman in the back decides to get off the bus rather than put up with the noise, chaos, language, and insults. She makes a racist comment as she leaves, which earns a nasty, sexually charged prank from one of the students, Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell), whose hair and clothes made me think of the styles in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
But Gondry keeps coming back to the irresistibly peppy Bust a Move to convey that all this bullying is in good fun. As if to show that no serious harm was done, he lets the racist woman get revenge on the kid who pranked her.
But still, there’s an air of menace under the fun. Teenagers are like piranhas. It’s not the individual you need to be afraid of, but rather the swarm.
At each stop, a few students get off the bus. This attrition defines the insightful story arc. The swarm of piranhas becomes less excited. There is less kinetic energy. There is still cruelty, but it gets more subdued with each teenagers that debarks. The individuals who remain become more recognizable as individuals. Their personalities are less subsumed by the group.
It’s remarkable is how real the characters and scenes feel. It almost feels like a film that the kids themselves would make — except for the big-picture arc that shows a mature artist at work. Gondry collaborated with a group of art students, and that collaboration probably helps explains the film’s convincing naturalism.
The second episode is called “The Chaos,” and the music tells us it’s darker and less fun. The cruelty is less obvious, but perhaps more cutting. A viral video shows a classmate slipping and falling. The video is slapstick-funny, but it’s troubling that we’re laughing at the pain of a peer (Gondry makes it very unfunny later in the film).
To add insult to injury, the unpopular students don’t get the video. When only one or two are left asking “what’s so funny,” they themselves become the butt of a new cruel joke: they have been identified as the losers who aren’t on anyone’s contact list.
Just as you’re ready to give up all faith in humanity, Gondry moves into the third act called “The I.” By now, enough kids have gotten off the bus that the few remaining riders are actually able to connect one-on-one, as human beings. They’re no longer showing off for the crowd, they’re just talking. Now you can finally see what sort of adults these last students might become, and Gondry at last gives us reason to hope.
The first student we saw, Teresa (Teresa Lynn) is still on the bus. She has taken abuse from all quarters, made fun of because she has been institutionalized and because her crush on one of the boys was publicly revealed. Yet when it comes down to just her and Michael (Michael Brodie), her ex-boyfriend and tormentor, it’s clear that she’s going to have a better future, and that Michael, popular though he is, has a lot to learn.
The We and the I is ultimately satisfying. The actors don’t pull any punches when they are in full piranha mode. But somehow, humanity keeps managing to survive its teenage years, and the kids on the bus in the Bronx will too.