“This was the first time I ate food from a garbage can,” says the documentarian Nanfu Wang some 10 minutes into I Am Another You, an excellent, intuitive study of American wanderlust. We see her doing just what she’s described, as she’s handed off her camera to the 22-year-old street kid who has become her subject. Born in China and now based in New York, Wang took a bus to Florida in 2011, honoring her longstanding ritual of seeing someplace new on each birthday. Always open to possibilities, she filmed the people she met, especially the electric charmer Dylan, a sunny-blond Utah boy living off handouts and odd jobs and sleeping in parks, beaches and the occasional hostel. He talks a lot about freedom, about not having fit in back home; he has the smile and quick wit to make friends everyplace he goes, and Wang captures several instances of people he’s just met slipping him cash or inviting him to crash on their couches. Wang, fascinated, spends a week as his tagalong, scavenging food and ducking the cops, capturing his poetry/philosophy (“Every day is now, right now. Every time is right now”), his street encounters and a series of arresting Florida reveries.
“This was a kind of freedom I had never encountered before,” she says, and the first third of I Am Another You — her follow-up to Hooligan Sparrow, that continent-crossing study of Chinese dissidence — celebrates Dylan and the footloose liberation he seems to exemplify. But then his drinking and prickliness rub Wang wrong, and she heads back to New York to see to other projects. It’s here that Wang’s film vaults from loose character study to something more fascinating: Two years later, Wang visits Utah, where she tracks down and interviews Dylan’s family. Turns out the kid who rejected society comes from an upstanding Mormon household. Dylan’s father, a police officer who handles cases involving sex crimes and children, speaks with touching frankness about the traumatic aspects of his work. He also tears up telling us about how Dylan, a smart kid facing schizophrenia, turned to drugs and eventually decided to leave. Here is a father recounting, with a tremble, his son’s entirely elective first day of homelessness. “I want you to survive, and I trust that you can survive,” the father tells us he said to his son, at the bus station.
Chief among Wang’s great strengths as a documentarian are her curiosity and her ability to win the trust of her subjects. I Am Another You becomes more fascinating as Dylan’s family lets her camera into their lives — eventually, she films Dylan’s father’s second wedding, a ceremony Dylan himself attends. At the reception, the young man seems confident that he’ll be sticking around Utah for a good while, but within a couple of days he’s telling Wang that he has to leave, that everyone in Mormon country is too judgmental for a tatted freethinker to find peace there.
One scene, heartbreakingly intimate, finds Dylan in the living room with his stepmother and younger brother, watching the footage Wang had shot of him in Florida two years earlier. Dylan roars at his street-life adventures, but you can see that the family is pained and stung — it’s much easier for them to be supportive if his life away from them is an abstraction.
The final reels find Wang once again in Florida, following Dylan, trying to make sense of his life and her response to it. She knows now things that she missed in 2011, though it’s somewhat apparent in that old footage: He hears voices in his head, and to flood them away he drinks prodigiously. She puzzles over mental health and nonconformity, of the idea of being free to choose a life of homelessness versus the possibility of that life being the best that America offers some people. Wang is something of an interventionist filmmaker, one who considers in her films themselves how the presence of the documentarian alters the lives that she is documenting — and, sometimes, like a friend, aspires to do some good. In the last scenes, she nudges Dylan toward being more open about what goes on in his brain. Together, they stage a performance, among his hostel friends, crafted to share his own experience of schizophrenia. It’s a revelation, and not just for us.