Chronicling the turbulent relationship between two London girls growing up over three decades, Sandra Goldbacher’s “Me Without You” is a light, captivating exploration of the complicated, consuming nature of female friendships and the mutual dependency of opposites. While the story’s conflicts at times feel poorly resolved and its conclusion a little pat, the two appealingly played central characters and the film’s enjoyable evocation of the 1970s and ’80s keep it buoyant and diverting. Unlikely to be a major commercial entry, the comedy-drama should nonetheless find appreciative audiences in key urban markets, especially among young women.
Goldbacher’s second feature is vastly more engaging than her 1999 debut “The Governess,” which wore its righteous Jewish feminism a little too laboriously on its sleeve. At a time — in the U.S. in particular — of zero tolerance toward anything politically incorrect, the new film could perhaps be amusingly accused of being anti-goyim given that all the Jewish characters are sensitive, caring, cultured and intelligent while the gentiles — with one notable exception to keep it kosher — are self-absorbed and superficial. But even with this slight bias, the film remains sweet and good-spirited.
Central characters are Holly (Michelle Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel). Introduced as preteens in 1973, the fundamental differences between them and their families and the things they envy in each other’s lives are swiftly established.
Marina lives with her mother (Trudie Styler), a glamorous, Valium-popping former croupier dedicated to maintaining her looks and separated from her pleasure-seeking airline pilot husband (Nicky Henson). Holly’s parents (Allan Corduner, Deborah Findlay) are protective, down-to-earth, utterly middle-class folks who encourage her to value her cleverness above her appearance. Even at this tender age, Holly’s romantic fixation with Marina’s cute older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn) is apparent.
Skipping ahead to 1978, the girls’ mid-teen years coincide with the rise of punk. They practice spitting while impatiently waiting to be deflowered and experiment with drugs. Creating her first rift with Marina, Holly sleeps with Nat in a druggy stupor while his regular girlfriend is momentarily absent. Establishing a pattern of disloyalty that follows them into their adult lives, Marina tears up the caring letter Nat writes to Holly before he takes off for the Continent.
Heftiest chunk of the action unfolds in 1982 during the girls’ college years in Brighton, when Holly is a politically committed, dedicated student and Marina a dedicated partier. Holly’s sharp intellect catches the attention of suave American lit-crit professor Daniel (Kyle MacLachlan) and a mutual attraction ensues. But competitive Marina quickly maneuvers herself into his bed. Holly follows soon after, but neither girl reveals her affair to the other.
Least satisfying section is the sluggish wrap-up in 1989 when Marina prepares to marry a nice Jewish doctor and convert to Judaism, while Holly half-heartedly dates a smooth but shallow boxer and Nat returns again from Paris with his sulky actress wife (Marianne Denicourt). More capricious behavior from Marina prompts Holly to try severing their bond. But the obstacles are overcome, albeit in far-too-easy shorthand fashion, leading to a predictable 2001 conclusion.
Arguably, one too many periods are covered, but the film gains considerable charm from its humorous observation of each of them. The zeitgeist of the times is conveyed in the prevailing attitudes of the characters but also in fun costumes and art direction and a terrific soundtrack of period Brit music that ranges from pastel post-hippie pop to driving punk, cool alt-rock and haughty New Romantic-era tunes.
Of the central duo, Friel has the most difficult job, playing an essentially unsympathetic brat, whose motives in keeping her friend around remain questionable throughout. But the actress continually tempers the negatives with a vulnerability and insecurity that redeem her. But the real center of the film and the character clearly closest to director Goldbacher’s sensibility is Holly. “Dawson’s Creek” star Williams follows Gwyneth Paltrow in “Sliding Doors” and Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” as the latest American thesp to convincingly play British, bringing warmth, intelligence and tenderness to the role.
In the supporting ranks, Milburn cuts a sensitive, appealing figure, while Styler supplies some amusement as Marina’s hedonistic, me-person mother and Corduner (“Topsy-Turvy”) gives a lovely performance as Holly’s big-hearted opera-buff dad. Production values are sharp in every department.