Some people hate experimental writing. I'm fine with it, as long as I can sense the purpose of the author and gauge the success of the work according to how close the author came to accomplishing that purpose. But the stubborn, self-centered reader in me also wants to feel some measure of satisfaction by the end of a story. With experimental writing, often that's more of an intellectual turn than an emotional one—meaning, "catharsis" often applies only to the recognition that we somehow think that we get it. The other thing about experimental writing is that the traditional plot—Freytag's pyramid, based on rising action > climax > falling action—gets tossed out the window in favor of a modular or collage approach.
That's certainly the case with "Me and You and Everyone We Know," which was written and directed by Miranda July. Traditional character development is abandoned while July explores variations on the theme of people of all ages and both genders who are so desperate for connection that they're capable of nearly unspeakable acts. You never understand the why behind their actions, or even how they came to be where they're at. The focus is on the moment, and the random acts of desperation that occur to each—make that desperate acts of randomness.
John Hawkes (star of "Deadwood," not to be confused with the famous experimental writer of the same name) plays white trash shoe salesman Richard Swersey, whose life swerves sharply and surprisingly off-course when his black wife announces she's divorcing him and moving out, leaving him to raise their two mixed-race boys. Which is to say, leaving the boys on their own.
We don't see any more of the ex-wife, but we see plenty of Swersey and his sons, teenaged Peter (Miles Thompson) and five- or six-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff). Both boys seem dulled, partly by heredity (their father's no genius), and partly by the computer screen that occupies most of their time. And we watch the two of them engage in online chat-room sex talk, with the youngest Swersey feeding the older boy lines about "pooping back and forth." Yep, it's pretty sick. So is the magic trick that dad performs on himself when he says there ought to be a celebration to mark the mother's leaving, and he pours lighter fluid on his hand in front of the boys and sets it aflame.
There are seven distinct threads in this fractured narrative: two follow the boys in a separate and sometimes the same thread, one follows Swersey, another follows his big and bulky shoe-store friend and apartment-dwelling neighbor, another follows a "good" girl who likes Peter and is assembling a hope chest, while another follows two "bad" girls who are determined to become sexually adept.
The final thread follows Christine Jesperson (July), a wannabe electronic media artist whose life as an Elder Cab driver seems dull, but not dulling enough to push her, like a stalker, in the direction of Swersey—a man she just met at a shoe store.
What July does well is to handle pathos and shell-shocked reactions in her characters, creating a world as believably bereft as Raymond Carver's fictional landscape, which filmgoers saw in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Like Carver's fiction, these stories are more snapshots of emotional states rather than fully realized characters, and the focus is more on their coping with present situations than on moving forward or looking backwards. July also bequeaths each character with an odd scene or quirk which makes them stand out—the burning hand for Swersey, the "poop" for his youngest son, serving as judge for a two-girl fellatio contest for Peter, for the neighbor it's "talk dirty" signs posted in his window to flirt with two teenaged girls, and for Jesperson its her artistic videotape.
While I can appreciate the sense of isolation that drives each character to do some pretty strange things in order to connect with other people in the weirdest ways, there's that part of me who still wants to feel as if there's something more to it—as I did when I once watched a performance artist iron onstage in silence for 30 minutes. Okay, I thought, it's a statement about the dreary life of a housewife which can serve as a metaphor for women in general. But then what? That's the feeling I got while watching July's film. It's fascinating, it pulls you in, and then it releases you. These characters want to connect, and they do so in only the most tenuous and unfulfilling ways. I wanted more.
For a first full-length feature, though, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" is a huge accomplishment, and the awards it received at various festivals pay tribute to that. It won Best First Feature at the Philadelphia Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival, and The Very Young Critics Award at Cannes. The direction seems right, the editing by Andrew Dickler and Charles Ireland flawless, given how choppy this could have felt in the hands of less-gifted talents, and the performances were wholly believable, even those from the young actors: Carlie Westerman as hope-chest girl Sylvie, and Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend as nasty girls Heather and Rebecca.
The pivotal line in the film comes when one of the elderly people whom Jesperson drives says the only regret he has about the woman at the home he's in love with is that he didn't meet her 50 years earlier. But then he adds, thoughtfully, "Maybe I needed 70 years of life to be ready for a woman like Ellen." What July's film shows, more than anything, is that these characters (and by implication, a lot more like them) have a long way to go before they're ready to really connect with people.
Video: "Me and You and Everyone We Know" is presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality is quite good—especially for an independent film. July filmed many of the scenes in daylight or single light-source interiors to minimize the lighting challenges, and that was probably a good decision. But even in interior shots where there's some pretty harsh backlighting the picture is sharp.
Audio: July's film has an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that's as good as the picture—which is to say more Hollywood than Indie film quality. Subtitles are in English.
Extras: The only extras are a handful of deleted scenes: "For poop, for poop," "Robby Poops in Yard" extended and shorter versios, "Shamus and the Grenade," "She Looks Like a Prostitute," and "Lesbian Mom." There's no commentary and no feature where July lets us know what she had in mind.
Bottom Line: Miranda July is a name that I expect we'll be hearing a lot in the future. Her first feature film has both heart and audacity.