Last week at Cannes I encountered a familiar problem: standing in line for a crowded screening and getting turned away at the door. Within hours, I heard that a consensus had been reached: The new Michel Gondry film was terrible. "The We and the I," the opening-night selection of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, finds the director working on a small, amateurish scale with a bunch of non-professional teen actors and, apparently, failing miserably to make something good out of it.
A few days later, I finally saw the Gondry, and there's more to the story than that rushed verdict. The movie has its issues, but there's a lot to appreciate about it. First of all, it's the only Gondry movie with no semblance of overt magic realism. The entire story takes place in real time, on a Bronx school bus, with a free-flowing, improvisational dynamic closer to a Duplass brothers movie than anything else in Gondry's oeuvre.
True, Gondry coaches hugely uneven performances from a cast of young non-actors who might not make the cut in a high school play, but he also nails the essence of teen testosterone. The narrative's framing device develops a nice rhythm as it goes along: A crew of wisecracking bullies hang in the back and pick on nearly everyone else, the crowd shrinks and eventually their ringleader receives an unexpected comeuppance. Made on the cheap while Gondry was working on "The Green Hornet," "We" has a handmade aesthetic that pervades nearly every ingredient of the design, and it frequently compensates for its rough edges with effective small moments between the various high-strung youths.
Had I acted on the bad buzz and simply crossed "The We and the I" off my list, I would have missed the opportunity to experience this intriguing footnote to Gondry's larger career until it found its way to another festival or surfaced in theaters, which these days can take ages. That's the inherent problem of Cannes this year and every other: The environment invites extreme, instant reactions that can define the entire reputation of a movie even before the lights go up. A single reckless boo or dismissive tweet can cause a ripple effect with hugely debilitating results.
Sometimes, this fragile dimension of the environment can make it a tremendously exciting place to be, but such sudden polarities cause flawed movies still worthy of discussion to flatline. There have been some terrific achievements dominating the headlines so far, and consensus has formed around Michael Haneke's "Amour" and Pablo Larraín's "No" as the two strongest achievements of Cannes 2012; Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" is certainly the most memorable. These are the best movies to write home about. On the opposing side, you have John Hillcoat's complete misfire "Lawless" and Ken Loach's middling lower-class whiskey heist comedy "The Angels' Share," which is nowhere near as interesting as that brief description might sound. (I'm pretty sure that at this point a Loach movie has the power to land a slot in the Cannes competition from the moment the director thinks it up.)
But what about those movies neither forgettable nor impeccably brilliant? They face a merciless crowd. Gondry's movie isn't the only one coping with this conundrum. Two entries in the Un Certain Regard sidebar have received notably divisive reactions but certainly deserve more nuanced looks. Chilean director Pablo Trapero's "White Elephant," his follow-up to the tense 2010 drama "Carancho," was anointed with a "boo" in Cannes' Debussy Theatre less than half a second after the final cut to black. While suffering from a lack of payoff, "White Elephant" nevertheless assembles a complex look at two priests attempting to improve the quality of life in the crime-riddled slums of Buenos Aires. Even when it meanders, "White Elephant" maintains Trapero's distinctive ability to seamlessly transform a leisurely scene of exposition into a suspenseful action sequence within the same shot. His mise-en-scene is thoroughly engrossing, and the high stakes never let up even when Trapero fails to take them to a satisfying end. If nothing else, "White Elephant" confirms Trapero's mastery, and sometimes that's enough to keep it in the conversation.