You’ve got your indie movies that are self-consciously “hip” and tediously self-aware; they go to great lengths of easy oddity to avoid getting themselves labeled “mainstream,” and in the process they end up like something that came off an assembly line of quirk, like you might find them in Spencer Gifts at the mall where the nonconformist kids all flock to conform to one another. And then you’ve got your films that are truly art: uncomfortable in the incisiveness of their observations, aggressively attuned to the ordinary in such a way as to make you desperately wish they didn’t make you acknowledge how boring and depressing we all tend to be.
Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know straps you into your seat like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, forcing you to look at the lowdown dirty everyday stuff of slogging through life anew. Oh, it fools you at first into thinking it’s going be one of those Spencer Gift indies, an ordinary oddball little flick about people who are “real” because they don’t look like perfectly plastic Frankensteinian creatures molded by plastic surgery and whose lives are concerned with mundane things like working in boring jobs and raising their kids. Like how Christine Jesperson (writer/director July) drives old people around Los Angeles for a living while she makes her bad art that no one wants to buy or show. Like how Richard Swersey (Deadwood’s John Hawkes) sells ugly shoes in a low-end department store while wearing cheap suits and trying to manage his disaffected sons after a divorce. And it’s fine and quirky and just a little strange and not-Hollywood and you’re feeling all smart and superior for merely not seeing a comic-book movie.
And then Me and You turns into an anti-entertainment, something defiantly and disconcertingly unmovielike, the very antithesis of popcorn escapism. July’s Rachel Griffith-y weirdness and pseudo-naÃ¯f innocence as she dispenses advice to her elderly clients and tries to interest a gallery curator in her art becomes something so achingly poignant and wise that you want to stop watching, because the hope and hurt in it is too much a reminder of how many people abandon their dreams to conventionality. Hawkes’ hardscrabble working-class suffering transcends the very classist, patronizing characterization it initially invites, as if to say, “You have no idea what this man is going through,” and you don’t, really, even by the end of the film.
That’s a peculiar and wonderful thing to be told by a film, a who-do-you-think-you-are slap in the face that dares you even to try to understand how bizarre perfectly normal people are. You first see it when Christine, trying to break through Richard’s hard protective outer shell, hops into his car on a whim, like something out of a Hollywood romantic comedy, and he resents not being treated like “a regular man” but like “a character in a book” ... and you realize he’s not joking or kidding, but she was completely in earnest. Like Christine, you look around, mystified, as though you’re the one missing the joke, like you’re not sure you’re ready to deal with rock-bottom reality like this.
July, a performance artist and fiction writer, is making her feature filmmaking debut here, and it defies categorization. She wrote the story upon which Wayne Wang’s depressingly authentic The Center of the World was based, and there are many similar elements of painful rawness here. Kids matter-of-factly experiment with impersonal sex; people obstinately plan for a future that resists planning-for at all turns. But this daisy chain of forlorn people living precarious lives of quiet sorrow and thwarted attempts to connect with others is unlike any other film you’ve ever seen, or likely to see again soon. It just hits too closely to the secret heart of most of us to invite duplication.