|BELIEVE THE HYPE? ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW.|
It comes from the best of intentions. You attend a big film festival, and there's a sense of possibility in the air. All these unseen films (often from unknown directors) are going to screen, and you're there to watch it happen. As opposed to the cynical manipulation of
big Hollywood-marketed pictures, movies at a festival can feel touchingly vulnerable and special. The thrill of discovery is palpable and intoxicating.
For many indie film fans, Sundance provides such an occasion every January. Drowning in agents and distributors hungry for next big things, the festival revels in the fresh and the new. And every year, prizes are awarded to the
best, which may or may not help the films once they go out into the scary real world of American moviegoers. For every Memento and Primer and You Can Count On Me that lives up to its buzz, there are box-office and critical duds like Happy, Texas and The Spitfire Grill, which become confirmation to the jaded that the Park City festival is just a bunch of hot air and overrated movies.
Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know received the most acclaim from Sundance 2005, with critics falling over themselves to gush its praises. I didn't attend Sundance this year, so I won't presume to know what was going through the minds of those who were there -- and, besides, Me and You equally impressed at this summer's Cannes Film Festival. But after seeing the film, I'm reminded again of the gulf between supportive goodwill that can overcome a festival audience and the OK-let's-see-the-goods expectation of your typical theater audience. Clearly, the Sundance crowd saw July's filmmaking debut as a quirky, original romantic comedy that revels in its offbeat slice-of-life Americana. Conversely, lots of regular moviegoers are gonna wonder what the fuck this pretentious crap that they're watching is. Unfortunately, both camps are right.
As you may have noticed if you've read an alternative-press publication or independent-filmmaking magazine in the last two months, Miranda July is the consummate artiste -- before writing and directing Me and You, she wrote short stories, she performed theater pieces, she did public radio and she dabbled in experimental film thingies. None of this is surprising watching Me and You: It has the showoff quality of someone with a formidable sensibility who just can't wait to try out her new toy. Ever since Orson Welles swung for the fences with Citizen Kane, there is something bracing in watching a rookie blithely throw away conventions to make his or her own personal project.
Though it wanders the same outsider terrain that's been well-traveled by other Sundance faves as Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Station Agent, July brings a more poetic/precious air to her roundelay of disenfranchised kids, heartbroken shoe salesmen and insecure performance artists. Plot means less than coincidence and theme: July plays the performance artist who falls in love with the shoe salesman who has the disenfranchised kids who have a mysterious tangential connection to the performance artist -- and so on and so forth. Like a Robert Altman ensemble piece, Me and You drifts from life to life, compounding the minor incidents until they seemingly possess the realness of normal existence. Less a realist than a wouldn't-it-be-nice-ist, July as a filmmaker intriguingly mixes up potentially dark drama with whimsical moments, alternates between beautifully simple camera set-ups and self-consciously clever tricks like slow-mo and distractingly hip mise-en-scene. She's after the transient nature of love and human connection, but she also wants to critique the art scene and internet sex -- and, as you may imagine, she takes performance art very seriously. She doesn't have anything new to say, per se, but you can't doubt its style, just like you couldn't walk out of George Washington or Primer and not be impressed by the confidence and tonal control on display.
In other words, if there was no hype, you'd tell friends that, yeah, it's an interesting attempt at something unique and, sure, not everything works, but at least she casts a more loving gaze on her collection of young children, old men and all-around screw-ups than you'd expect after years of Todd Solondz's misanthropic films. But no one going to see Me and You is expecting anything that's merely promising -- they've read the reviews and they want brilliance. They're starving for it.
While much has been made about the industry's box office slump, less has been made about the art house's troubles of late. In the past, the summer was a great time for quality counter-programming -- usually, you'd get a John Sayles film or a controversial/critical powder keg like a Fahrenheit 9/11 or In the Company of Men. This summer, though, seemingly sure-fire work like Howl's Moving Castle hasn't sparked hefty per-screen averages, and only Mad Hot Ballroom has proven to be much of an indie hit. Because of this,`Me and You stands virtually alone -- it's gotten the best reviews, it's doing terrific business on limited screens, and, what, you're really gonna see that movie about the penguins instead?
That's why I'm a little sad that July has been anointed with so much good press. It's too much too soon, and, frankly, the film can't live up to the accolades. Think about it in terms of that band you loved in college that nobody else had heard of. They were your band, and that made them special; the emotional connection was compounded by your excitement about supporting them. But then you gave the band's CD to your friends, and what happened? They didn't see what the big deal was, right? Because you had talked it up so much, their expectations were too high. Instead of sharing your enthusiasm, your friends seem underwhelmed and annoyed -- this was what you were so excited about?
Festivals like Sundance generate buzz for smaller films that need all the help they can get -- Roger Ebert proclaiming July's film "this year's Sideways" undoubtedly was meant to serve just that purpose -- and perhaps you can forgive a little overkill in the name of good intentions. But too many solid-but-unspectacular films like Me and You and Everyone We Know will give the unsuspecting the wrong idea. The Sundance supporter will praise the romance's awkward, whimsical stumblings as lifelike; the regular moviegoer will snipe at how there's zero motivation for the film's couple to get together (other than the fact that they're the two main characters). The Sundance supporter will applaud the unconventional narrative structure; the regular moviegoer will wonder what precisely is the point of the digression involving July's character's attempt to get her work into a local gallery -- or the shoe salesman's coworker's attempts to lure two feisty teenagers into taking their clothes off.
Me and You is a classic "Yeah, But" film. Yeah, it's unique and distinct, but it's unfocused and a wee bit smug. Yeah, it could use a sharper story, but it's very atmospheric -- and I find myself thinking about it more than two weeks after seeing it. "Yeah, But" films are by their very nature frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying. They ask you to wait for the director's next film to see where she goes from here. Both camps -- the ecstatic Sundance fans and the confused multiplex frequenters -- will have to hold off until then. Let's not kill off a promising up-and-comer by assuming she's made it already.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.