When Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang discovers a nomadic 22-year-old American homeless man in the first chapter of her documentary “I Am Another You,” he’s living the dream; the rest of the movie is a gradual wakeup call. With time, Nanfu comes to understand that rejecting society isn’t such a simple proposition. By bringing an outsider perspective to the Western world, Nanfu pulls apart the American dream from the inside out. Shot over the course of several years, the movie blends an intimate perspective with trenchant investigative chops, uncovering a transitory figure whose romantic ideals give way to a harsh reality check.
The documentarian’s feature-length debut “Hooligan Sparrow,” a shortlist for the Oscar in 2016, dealt with institutional dysfunction in her native country. With “I Am Another You,” she takes a more personal approach, exploring the mythology of the American dream as a naive interloper subject to conflicting points of view.
Narrating her journey, she builds “I Am Another You” into three chapters, the first of which being its most ambitious. A documentary film student living in New York, she launches a travelogue across the country, where she encounters carefree 22-year-old Dylan crashing at a youth hostel and celebrating his existence on society’s margins. A grungy hipster covered in tattoos and unkempt facial hair, Dylan waxes poetic about his ability to escape the restrictions of a capitalist world. Curious about his placid demeanor and seemingly trouble-free life, she agrees to follow him when he returns to the streets. “I’ll show you what freedom is like,” he says.
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The next few weeks find Nanfu experiencing Dylan’s homelessness up close, following the charismatic loafer from couches to street corners as he manages to charm everyone in his immediate vicinity. Or, at least, that’s the way it looks at first; with Nanfu narrating the linear journey every step of the way, the movie stays within the confines of her experience as she gradually learns more about his situation. Small details about Dylan’s behavior — his drinking habits, abrupt flashes of anger — balloon into major clues that become more relevant further down the line. The first segment of the movie bears some comparison to Marc Singer’s 2000 documentary “Dark Days,” another chronicle of a filmmaker embedding with a homeless population, but Nanfu is more intrigued by the forces behind Dylan’s life choice than his ability to make it work.
It turns out her sincere inquisitiveness is actually a keen vessel of cultural investigation; it continues to develop once she parts ways with Dylan and returns to China to make “Hooligan Sparrow,” then returns to Florida with more ambitious aims and the confidence of a filmmaker in full control of her material. It’s there that she finds Dylan’s family, including his grief-stricken father, who provides a surprisingly lucid assessment of his wayward son. With new information about Dylan’s history, Nanfu revisits some of her earlier footage, and a bigger picture comes into focus.
While initially seeing Dylan as “a symbol of the free America I’d always heard about,” as she peels away some of the surface thrills of his existence she arrives at a more complicated understanding of his fragility. Recognizing that he’s sustained by “the privilege of choosing to be on the streets,” she digs into the personal ingredients that drove him away from the more comfortable lifestyle that was initially provided for him.
Nanfu maintains a tight grip on the structure of her compelling essay film, though at times she seems to grasp for too many themes at once, careening into an experimental look at mental health issues during the final chapter that lacks the same probing insights of the detective work leading up to that point. But the filmmaker keeps the story visually engaging, using the lyrical beachside imagery of the Florida landscape as a poetic backdrop for exploring the vanity of Dylan’s quest to escape responsibilities.
While “I Am Another You” is a scrappy production, it roots the narrative in the epic ambitions of its quixotic protagonist, and he fits nicely into a series of familiar archetypes. At best, he’s a freewheeling Huck Finn, and at worst, a disaster-prone adventurer reminiscent of “Into the Wild” subject Christopher McCandless. (His father compares him to Forrest Gump and Walter Mitty.)
However, “I Am Another You” goes beyond Dylan’s worldview to explore how various blue collar characters attempt to help him along his way. While the movie hardly endorses his ramshackle existence, it closes with the implication that there is a profound beauty in his aspirations, and much of this country shares it. He’s no messiah, but there’s truth to the underlying frustration behind his peripatetic ways. Even when he inspires pity from more fortunate people, it’s usually paired with a fair share of envy.
“I Am Another You” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.