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No one is too young, too old, too worldly, or too simple-minded to aspire to love and connectedness in Miranda July’s feature debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know. A tapestry of stories knits together characters ranging from a young boy to lonely 30-somethings to an elderly man, each struggling to understand What It’s All About. July, a performance artist and indie scenester who also wrote the script and stars, portrays each of her seekers as wide-eyed and dumbstruck—forever in awe at the beauty and sadness all around.
Of course, that’s the kinder view. The more cynical might find July’s grand vision less thought-provoking than precious and her slack-jawed actors—well, just plain irritating. Handily, prospective viewers can judge their stomachs for July’s film with what I’ll call the Goldfish Test. Imagine this: July’s character, Christine, is shuttling a senior citizen, Michael (Hector Elias), home after a trip to the mall, part of her day-job duties as a driver for a transportation service called Eldercab. They chat about Christine’s career advancement—surprise: she’s also a budding performance artist—and the magical timing of Michael’s new romance. Then Michael spots a plastic bag with a pet fish resting precariously on the roof of a nearby van.
“I guess these are its last moments of life,” Christine says after they decide that, should the driver stop or accelerate, little Nemo will be toast. “Should we say some words?” Christine goes on to tell the fishy that it should know it’s loved. But she doesn’t give up hope: After the bag is launched onto the trunk of another car, Christine pulls in front of it in an attempt to hold its driver to a steady pace, though she’s concerned that the little girl in the van behind them all is now aware of the drama unfolding. “At least she knows,” Michael says with gravity. “At least we’re all together in this.” The pair look stricken; music swells.
Did you pass? If you didn’t, you’ll at least be glad to know that the scene ends before somebody can cry out, “Oh, the humanity!” Of course, that sentiment oozes through most of the film’s 90 minutes anyway, and anyone not immediately swept away by July’s affected quirkiness will soon be feeling as tortured as her characters. In addition to Christine, there’s Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman who separates from his wife, Pam (JoNell Kennedy), and moves into a new home with the couple’s sons, Peter (Miles Thompson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff). There’s Richard’s co-worker, Andrew (Brad Henke), who’s both titillated and terrified when two adolescent girls, Heather and Rebecca (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend), flirt with him. And, more peripherally, there’s Nancy (Tracy Wright), a stuffy curator at an art museum who, alas, also has a deeply needy side, and Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), a creepily adult 10-year-old who’s assembling her own dowry.
Like Todd Solondz on estrogen, July has assembled a dreamy, storybook world that gives sympathetic treatment to both romantics and pedophiles. Here, however, it’s mainly the adults who have stars in their eyes and the kids who get down and dirty. Christine’s video-art projects are childlike and relationship-oriented, often including conversations about love and vows that she records herself, deepening her voice to recite the boyfriend’s lines. Richard, desperate to mark the occasion of his moving out with some kind of ceremony, sets his hand on fire and regards everyone with a puppyish look on his face, “prepared for amazing things to happen.” Meanwhile, Heather and Rebecca brazenly seduce Andrew (at one point using Peter for practice) and Peter and Robby engage in their main hobby, visiting an X-rated chat room—which culminates in the baby-faced Robby’s actually meeting the person with whom they’ve been interacting.
July’s script is overloaded with theatricality, with characters often speaking and behaving in rattlingly artificial ways. From Richard’s salesman-as-psychologist schtick (“You think you deserve the pain, but you don’t,” he says of Christine’s ill-fitting shoes) to Christine’s plain old weirdness (later stalking Richard from the hosiery department, she puts a pair of socks on her ears) to all of the children’s bizarre gravity (Sylvie, who never once smiles, answers a question with “Yes. Yes I have, Peter”), almost nothing these relentlessly oddball characters do makes them especially sympathetic. To be fair, July does manage to wring a moment or two of genuine heartache here and there—for example, Christine’s girlish, heartfelt pleas to a nonringing phone. But most of the emotions generated as her players bounce off one another feel forced.
Whether any actor could make this stuff resonate is debatable. In this case, July’s Christine comes off as more of a twit than a naive soul-searcher, and Hawkes’ greasy, tetched Richard is never believable as the former husband of classy, levelheaded Pam. (Why the children went to him is anybody’s guess.) As for the child actors, Slayton and Townsend register, but the rest simply stand around with their mouths open a lot. July and her crew may have had the best of intentions, hoping to present slices of life in which matters of love, loss, and friendship trump and transform the mundane. But by the time Me and You and Everyone We Know reaches its midpoint, with Christine embarking on another imaginary romance and saying to her supposed suitor, “I’m not sick of you at all!” most members of the audience will likely be feeling otherwise.CP