Unexpectedly atmospheric for a teen-angst drama cooped up in a basement, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Me and You” feels like an attempt to show that age, infirmity and three decades away from his native Italian cinema have done nothing to blunt his touch for capturing adolescent sensual yearning. But this slender, be-pimpled “Beseiged” is only half-convincing, and even less engaging, as 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) and his young-adult junkie half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) embrace the “claustrophilia” — as Bertolucci calls it — of a week spent hiding from the cruel world. Helmer’s name should draw modest auds around the world.
With the face of a satyr and the complexion of a toad, newcomer Antinori’s Lorenzo embodies mischief and embarrassment in equal measure. Traditional questions from his therapist (Pippo Delbono) fail to reveal what troubles the lad, though dinner with mom (Sonia Bergamasco) uncovers some not-quite-sorted Oedipal issues — echoes of Bertolucci’s openly incestuous “Luna” perhaps, though this slender tale is relatively chaste.
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In what seems to be his first true act of independence, Lorenzo takes the opportunity of a weeklong school ski trip to ditch class and plan his own vacation at home. He prepares as only a child might, buying his favorite junk food and stowing it in the family’s storage cellar, which comes equipped with an old mattress, and has electricity and a dingy bathroom.
One gets the sense that no one uses the basement, and that the small subterranean room represents the only fiefdom over which young Lorenzo can exercise control, so the arrival of his 25-year-old sibling reps a real blow to his autonomy. Yet Olivia turns out to be far needier than Lorenzo; after years of heroin abuse, she has vowed to quit, shacking up with her nervous half-brother for as long as it takes.
The awkwardly lovely Olivia represents a multi-petaled mystery to Lorenzo. Of course, she’s sexually intriguing — and Bertolucci has never been one to shy away from admiring nubile, peach-fuzzed flesh — though more importantly, she embodies some shameful aspect of his father’s past, the result of a distant affair. Lorenzo is fiercely protective of his mom, and idealizes her. Yet, hearing things from Olivia’s perspective forces him to consider his mother as someone capable of breaking up another’s relationship.
Still, the aspect of Olivia’s arrival that proves most significant to Lorenzo’s week in hiding is her vulnerability. Though 11 years his senior, Olivia is unstable and desperately in need of someone to guide her recovery. Lorenzo has never been put in such a position of responsibility, barely able to manage the ant farm he smuggled downstairs with him. But he is attentive, perhaps even obsessive-compulsive, and being sent on errands to get Olivia food or sleeping pills has a subtly transformative effect on his self-confidence.
Having previously stirred trouble in close confines with “The Dreamers” and “Besieged,” Bertolucci keeps the camera moving about the space so lithely, it feels less like a dungeon than the private stage for a coming-of-age that never quite comes. Such a dynamic style almost feels pitched to offer auds a purely emotional experience, were it not for the physical resemblance between wheelchair-bound Delbono and the director in the early therapy scene, which suggests a more psychoanalytic interest from both Bertolucci and co-writer Niccolo Ammaniti, whose novella inspired the film.
Ultimately, such a stir-crazy two-hander can only be as interesting as its actors, and though Antinori has a compelling face (a casting tip learned from Bertolucci’s mentor, Pier Paolo Pasolini), his unruly hair seems more tempestuous than his soul. For his model-like co-star, even subtitles can’t mask Falco’s difficulty in conveying the spontaneous, self-destructive aspects of Olivia’s character.
While the sibs’ behavior strains credulity at times, “Me and You” never feels like an out-of-touch Clearasil pic cooked up by a Geritol helmer. Apart from new toys (an MP3 player and laptop computer in Lorenzo’s case), the fundamentals of adolescence don’t change so much from one generation to the next. Still, a pivotal moment depends on Olivia playing the Italian-language version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the alternate lyrics of which suit the kids’ mindset snugly, even if the song is a surprising choice for her playlist.