More admirable in theory than in practice, “The We and the I” finds pop-surrealist auteur Michel Gondry getting real with non-pro teen thesps, cast as chatty Bronx kids coming home from school on what seems to be the slowest city bus on earth. That the ride runs feature-length is the sole supernatural element of a pic pegged, pre-Cannes, to include sci-fi — an act of wishful thinking, evidently. Believably boring and adolescent, but to a fault, the movie sputters until its final third, when, “Breakfast Club”-style, the kids turn serious. Die-hard Gondryites may help the uncommercial indie recoup its bus-fare budget.
Reading as Gondry’s back-to-basics response to the failure of “The Green Hornet,” “The We and the I” could’ve been lensed by the amateur auteurs of his “Be Kind Rewind.” Indeed, an early and ominously unfunny joke has a racist old woman (Helen DeSanto) using a twig to “whip” Big T (Jonathan Worrell), who had tried to push her off the bus with his dirty talk. Cell-shot video clips and a handful of teen-fantasy digressions are nearly the only scenes that take place off the bus, driven by a woman (Mia Lobo) but largely commandeered by three bullying boys in the rear.
Living to terrorize other kids with their random cruelty, Michael (Michael Brodie), Raymond (Raymond Delgado), and Jonathan (Jonathan Ortiz) spill pudding on Cooper Union-bound Teresa (Teresa Lynn), ruin a sketch by the so-called Mangaboy (Manuel Rivera), and stomp on a schoolmate’s guitar. Crudely split into thirds, the film opens with “Part One: The Bullies,” which also features less-than-compelling vignettes with shy Niomi (Meghan “Niomi” Murphy) and party-planning Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco); bickering lovers Luis (Luis Figueroa) and Brandon (Brandon Diaz); and an earnest boy (Kendrick Martinez) who tries to get a date to see a Vin Diesel movie.
Scarcely an improvement, “Part Two: The Chaos” includes tears, some would-be jokes about a Waterbra, an unscheduled stop at a pizzeria and a cameo appearance by a long-haired boy whose evident spirituality helps to settle a dispute in the back of the bus (and to earn him the nickname “Jesuskon”). In a way, albeit a perverse one, the film begins to seem more realistic in its midsection for the fact that there are no genuine laughs in it, even though the teenage characters giggle often and seem to believe they’re being funny.
Like the preceding chapters, “Part Three: The I” makes excessive use of a video clip of a boy slipping on a kitchen floor — a running gag in every way besides humor. Nevertheless, “The We and the I” works best in its “I” section, as Michael, left on the bus without his buddies (or his defenses), tries to endear himself to Alex (Alex Barrios), with whom he talks about absentee fathers, and later to Teresa, who has a crush on him.
Adding to the overall ineffectiveness of the pic’s dialogue is the poor sound recording, which doesn’t help those unfamiliar with Bronxese to comprehend what’s being said at all times. As if in recognition of this problem, Gondry fully lowers the volume of chatter in one brief scene — which, coincidentally or not, becomes one of the best in the movie.
The non-professional actors make an attractive and even indelible impression, collectively speaking, but individually, each varies from embarrassing to competent. Tail end of the film reveals that the script, co-written by Gondry, was inspired by young people at the Point, a community center in the Bronx. Additionally, the film’s end-credit crawl includes a gushing letter of thanks to Gondry from Mariaelena Vasquez, mother of Carrasco and two other young actors featured in the pic.
Relatively relaxed songs by Boards of Canada help the film — or allow it, some would say — to segue into dramatic territory.