American Beauty: Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know”
by Kristi Mitsuda with responses from Nicolas Rapold and Elbert Ventura
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
It’s rare that I find myself, within the first few moments of a movie, certain of imminent love for it. Multimedia maven Miranda July‘s Camera d’Or-awarded feature debut, in which she also stars as a struggling artist, Christine, inspires just such confidence. It opens with an entrancingly immediate warmth, the rosy hues and ambient electronica of the soundtrack, a lullaby that rocks you gently into the dreaminess of the writer-director’s delicate ministrations. Like a novel’s good first sentence, her introductory images establish tone and trajectory in deft shorthand: A dusky photo of a couple gazing at a sunset and accompanying tremulous cadences of Christine’s voice as she narrates an imagined scene between the pair. July then cuts to a glimpse of Richard (John Hawkes) captivated by a bird in the branches outside his window before, feeling the need for some kind of ceremony to mark the end of his marriage, setting his own hand on fire.
It’s thus predetermined from the start — their identically fanciful natures assure it — that Christine and Richard belong together though they haven’t yet met. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” chronicles their journey towards one another, tracing the outlines of love across the expanse of many incarnations — friendly, familial, romantic — as it exists amongst a motley crew of unusual characters.
Full of whimsy and often achingly lovely, July’s cast of eccentrics enchant rather than grate. Though they seem to exist in a vein endemic to the now-shopworn affectations of peculiarity specific to American indies, July delineates these idiosyncrasies as embedded tendencies born of loneliness. Evidenced in everything from Christine’s lachrymose pleas to a gallery curator at the end of a videotape submission to a child next door’s systematic accumulation of items to place in her hope chest to Richard’s shy queries to his two sons (“Objectively speaking, if you weren’t my children, would you think, ‘That guy looks okay?'”), the oddities attributed each individual praise from grapplings with spiritual isolation rather than the author’s cool remove or cleverness. In stripping the tongue-in-cheek quality from the quirkiness, July reveals the fragile humanity beneath.
Though set in the present, free of pop-cultural markers and postmodern pretenses, the film is animated by a charming anachronism. Christine’s nostalgic style of dress, imploring sincerity, and utter belief that a single person could be perfect for her carries with it a wistful innocence. At first, you wait for the punchline to the plaintive sentiments, as when Christine and Michael (Hector Elias) — who she shuttles around on errands as part of her day job as an “Elder Cab” driver — observe with dismay a goldfish, left accidentally in its plastic bag precariously perched atop the car neighboring theirs on the highway, and say a solemn prayer for its incipient death; slowly you realize this is the way July’s world functions, with rapt attention and tenderness for the most seemingly insignificant of creatures.
Befitting a modern-day fairy tale, much of the language is heavily symbolic. Upon meeting, Richard, who works as a shoe salesman at the local department store, examines Christine’s blistered feet and gently admonishes, “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.” Encouraging her to follow his advice to invest in new flats, Michael chimes in, “Your whole life could be better starting right now.” Because of this coded manner of speaking, an emotional heft colors the smallest interactions, imparting a gravitas surprising in such an ethereal slice-of-life description. This heightened aspect envelops the film with an aura of surrealism, though one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint its exact origins; July summons a unique realm where the everyday is elevated to the level of the mythical, the frequent grand gestures made by the characters stunningly ordinary.
“Me and You and Everyone We Know” achieves a rare distinction: It manages to make a cinematic exploration of love, that most done-to-death of all themes, effervescently fresh again; appropriately, watching it feels like falling in love – it stirs that same sense of shock that hits suddenly upon recognition, then gradually gives way to sheer sublimity as you allow yourself to revel in its miraculous glow. When Richard unwraps his hand from its bandage and marvels to his children, “It’s so sensitive; it needs some air; it needs to do some living. Let’s take my hand for a walk,” we’re primed and ready to follow him to the ends of the earth, and the movie doesn’t disappoint: The magical denouement unravels in evocative images of such spare beauty they take your breath away.
[ Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick. ]
By Nicolas Rapold
Partly to rescue Miranda July’s debut feature from faint praise as a charming “quirky romance,” it’s worth arguing that her subject is not love, primarily, but another four-letter word?: play. In the permanent after-school glow of the film’s golden light, July’s characters are seen either expressing some regressive childlike quality or, if kids, just being themselves. Her own character, Christine, is our underdog muse, a neatly dressed woman-child, her fresh face hopeful but able to fall into hurt shock. She chauffeurs a senior who has been rejuvenated (or infantilized) by a late romance into a permanent state of wonder. Christine approaches her own crush, Richard, with a playfulness distinct from calculated romantic-comedy whimsy, spying on him at work with a child’s air of faking through an adult world.
Then there are the kids with their crazy blow jobs. The most striking accomplishment of “Me and You” — and its revolutionary honesty about the many forms of play — is the depiction of children’s sexual lives without the moralizing plot of forbidden games or rites of passage. But July complicates the theme through a much younger boy’s chat-room encounter, full of scatological nonsense that the kindergartener enjoys oblivious to its pornographic potential. The scene, an extraordinary and exhausting combination of hilarious and harrowing, lets July suggest that play is inseparable with risk, even if the risks have gotten exotic. She adds yet another note with a second threatened collision between adult and kid agendas, when a neighbor (Richard’s co-worker) parses the prospect of fooling around with two junior-high girls.
Performance art often addresses an idea of some sort, and there are stand-alone vignettes in “Me and You” that, though beautiful, risk precious shock (e.g., the goldfish-on-the-car-roof sequence). But July’s exploration of play has an integrity and tonal vocabulary all its own.
[ Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer. ]
By Elbert Ventura
Arriving in theaters on a wave of awards and acclaim, Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” manages to at once evoke the alienation of contemporary life and offer a seductive salve. Set in drab bedrooms and shabby malls, the movie situates its daisy-chain of whimsical vignettes in the mundane. That its maker leaves us with the hope that epiphanies are still possible in this ghost world isn’t the surprise— it’s that such wide-eyed romanticism verging on fuzzy-headedness should prove so alluring.
As ecumenical as its title suggests, the movie doesn’t have a calculating bone in its body. July follows a disparate gallery of characters as they drift in and out of each others’ orbits. At the center of it all are Christine (July) and Richard (John Hawkes), she an addled artist, he a shoe salesman and recent divorcé. On their first encounter in the shoe section of the mall, Richard sees Christine’s blistered ankles and drops the Bickle-esque come-on: “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.” Theirs isn’t even the movie’s most unusual courtship — an Internet chat room tryst featuring, um, “pooping back and forth” takes the cake.
For a first-time feature, the movie is incredibly assured, not least in its performances — many of them by precocious but blessedly unself-conscious children. July’s Altman-esque ensemble work is impressive, but it’s really her vision of a holographic world that leaves a lasting imprint. In the world of “Me and You,” simulacra encroach on the realms of the real. Opening with a photograph of two lovers staring at the sunset and closing with a framed picture of a bird hung within the branches of a real tree, the movie luxuriates in the dissonance that living in such a hall of signs and mirrors creates. (When a character sets his hand on fire, it registers not so much as a gesture of madness but as the comprehensible act of a man looking to feel something real.) A lovely meditation on the spectral condition of modern life, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” grounds its indulgent flourishes in a distinct worldview. It’s the work of an artist in total command of her medium, and who manages to put exactly what’s in her head up on the screen.
[ Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a frequent contributor to the New Republic Online. ]