The title promises something rarefied and heady, but The We and the I, Michel Gondry's shaggy, roving social study, is grounded in home truth. If you've been to high school, you know all about it: The dreaded "we" that tends to form vicious clusters — in the cafeteria, the smoke pit, on the bus — and the shape-shifting teenage "I," continually battered and suppressed in a kind of peer-review contest for supremacy.
It's pretty simple stuff — fundamental, even. Gondry turns a single, if somewhat apocryphal, bus ride home into an arty after-school special, with charm gilding its frayed, earnest edges. The opening credits, scored to Young MC's "Bust a Move," set a playful tone: An old-school boom box tricked out like a New York City bus rolls past a Bronx high school as kids shoot out the doors, free for the summer. After trundling past a pothole that could swallow it whole, the mini-bus meets a witty demise — credits over. We're close to the ground, Gondry seems to say, but still within sight of cartoon fun.
Along BX66, the bus route Gondry and his cast of local, unprofessional kids made up for the film, we find less plot than overlapping variations on a theme. If you've ever had the bad fortune to be on public transport the moment a big-city school lets out, The We and the I holds a familiar terror. It's a hostile takeover, and resistance will get you a fresh squirt of teenage mockery. Onto the bus the kids pile, firing up phones freshly retrieved from quarantine and re-establishing their assigned domain — bullies to the back, art nerds to the window nook, mean girls to wherever they please, assorted geeks and virgins to the dead-bolted safe rooms inside their heads.
Initially, the kids stay close to type: There's Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco), the bodacious flirt with big plans for her sweet 16 and a seemingly endless supply of brothers; Michael (Michael Brodie), the smooth-skinned dreamboat who hangs with bullies but lets them do the dirty work; and Teresa (Teresa Lynn), the troubled loner who returns to school after a mysterious month away just to take this last bus ride home. Over roughly 90 minutes, characters step off the bus and disappear, beginning with Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell), a profane, plus-size menace to puny kids and feisty old ladies. At the ride's bullying peak, the entire bus turns on a disfigured man, but personalities and dynamics shift as their numbers dwindle. One by one, pieces of this jumbled group are removed until only two remain and are found to interlock.
Gondry exercises his music video chops, cutting between a half-dozen layers of chatter and petty intrigue; the rhythm is snappy and smooth, even when the acting is not. In one of several Gossip Girl moments, a video of a classmate wiping out on the kitchen floor pings between phones; to get the joke is to belong. Teresa, whose classmates show no mercy to her new blonde wig, goes notably un-pinged. She and Michael share a bond he refuses to acknowledge in public — that old song — but Teresa, wounded and a little pudgy, is willing to absorb cruel attention if the alternative is no attention at all.
Flashbacks and fantasies cut the crowded realism of the bus scenes with both darkness and whimsy: In one a young hustler brags to some girls about his night out with Donald Trump; in another a reputation-smearing party incident suggests the source of Teresa's woe. Antic visual riffs, as when yet another Laidychen brother appears, Jesus-like, to settle a dispute, mingle with a sense of approaching melancholy as the wheels roll on.
"The Fake and the Real" could be a shadow title. Identities are tweaked, swapped, forged, and called out before the journey's end (which arrives, like many real bus rides, about fifteen minutes too late). In one of the lovelier interludes, a beauty on a bicycle stuns the riders into admiring, slow-motion silence. She's a vision out of Les Mistons, Francois Truffaut's 1957 girl-watching short; she's also white, where almost everyone watching is not. But Gondry lets it play as a clarifying moment — even the most gormless of the bullies (Jonathan Ortiz) turns his head, filled with poetry.
At its finest and most affecting, The We and the I is a window onto youth's forever moments, those heavy gaps between school and home, senior year and summer, the person you are and the person you hope to be — when the future is a distant void and all the best and worst parts of life span the length of a city bus.