Miranda July’s Debut Feature Orbits Romantic Truth—Or Something Like It
The problem with movies is that they make it look easy. On-screen, love is usually a mere matter of boy meets girl, and any obstacles or troublesome issues or wrong steps are mere plot turns on the way to the happily ever after ending. Desire is uncomplicated and straightforward, and either good or bad in result. Coming of age and growing older equals ever-increasing confidence, mastery, wisdom. The lives of good people are never wasted in unsatisfying stasis, awash in inchoate longing.
Perhaps the biggest coup among the many that writer/director/star Miranda July pulls off with her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is that she wrestles convincingly with how hard and fraught and complicated love and sex and growing up and growing older can be while still winding up with a genuine laugh-and-a-sigh movie in the end.
You’re pretty certain Me and You is a movie when sincere, schlubby shoe salesman Richard (John Hawkes, aka Sol Star on HBO’s Deadwood), freaked over his imminent separation from his wife (Jonell Kennedy), pulls an inexplicable, wildly self-destructive stunt right in front of his two sons—and still retains half-time custody. Your suspicions are confirmed when you meet Christine (July), a video artist who happens to support herself by driving adorable senior citizens to the mall.
As July-the-writer/director gets to work in earnest, though, she proves herself and her work not so easy to pin down. Richard and Christine meet and, of course, strike sparks immediately. In a sure to be talked about and talk-show-clipped scene, a simple walk together down a city block animated by nervous chatter not only flaunts their bubbling-over chemistry but also slyly delivers a treatise about the course of relationships right in stride. But as Richard drives away, July’s camera lingers on Hawkes’ face just long enough to register the joy of meeting someone new collapsing into the doubt and anxiety of the recently scarred. It is not unexpected, in context, but it is entirely convincing.
Cooling bravado and stifled embarrassment are the prevailing atmospheres of Me and You as the wider cast of characters crisscross stories. Christine submits her work (mostly homey taped fantasies of true love pledged and fearful self affirmed) to a local museum only to get frosted by a haughty black-clad curator (Tracy Wright). A pair of precocious teen girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend, perfectly cast) sexually taunt Richard’s loutish bachelor co-worker (Brad William Henke); rattled when he responds, they regroup and decide to practice their skills on Richard’s stoic adolescent son Peter (Miles Thompson). Despite the girls’ attentions, Peter seems to have more in common with Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), a somber little girl from the neighborhood obsessed with acquiring the right housewares for her hope chest. (A memorable image: Sylvie, a wee Lynndie Englund ringer, discovered kneeling on the floor of her bedroom with her nose jammed into a pink vinyl shower curtain, inhaling deeply, as if it were a lover’s sweater.)
Virtually all of these lonely characters search for a real connection and find mostly absurdity and failure—true love that remains out of reach, sexual wish-list fantasies that prove less thrilling in reality, the lure of adult adventure competing with the safety and innocence of childhood. This theme gets its most overt illustration in a subplot involving Richard’s wide-eyed preschool-age son Robby (Brandon Ratcliff, so cute you could pop his head off) and a mystery woman who mistakes his online chat-room potty talk for racy badinage. It’s funnier and more poignant than anything that contrived has a right to be, which more or less sums up July’s achievement here.
Me and You and Everyone We Know has a hothouse feel to it—it’s hard to imagine characters this quirky and articulate and poised, for all their failings, could exist anywhere outside an art project or an indie movie. (Todd Solondz’s suburban manneredness and Napoleon Dynamite’s underdog chic both come to mind as events unfold.) But the cast’s rich performances and July’s finely worked script win you over. When Richard first meets Christine and gets an eyeful of her ankles, blistered from uncomfortable shoes, he tells her, just like that, “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.” She protests—“I just have low ankles,” a pretty good line in itself—but she, and you, are transfixed by Hawkes’ soulful sincerity. Time and again, July and company similarly avoid insufferable preciousness in favor of something that feels like the truth.