Independent film had come into its own—or so it seemed—when I started writing this column back in 1997. While the staggering success of Titanic clearly boded ill for aesthetic quality control in Hollywood, the fast-growing number of first-rate feature films made on a shoestring was a revolutionary development for grownups tired of the same old schlock. Alas, there was a catch: You could make a film on a credit card, but how did you get people to see it? In 1997 ordinary filmgoers saw new movies in theaters, then rented or bought the videos after the fact. Unless you lived in a large city, your local gigaplex simply didn’t show Next Stop Wonderland or You Can Count on Me, meaning that you didn’t hear about such films in the first place and thus were unlikely to rent them once they came out on video. The revolution, in other words, started right on time in New York and Los Angeles—only nobody bothered to tell the folks in Dubuque.
Now we’re just a few years away from the widespread availability of feature-length films that you down-load to your computer from the Web in the same way you download music from online stores like Apple’s iTunes. More and more middle-aged boomers are already staying home at night and watching cable TV instead of going out to see a movie. Soon they’ll be able to watch new movies like Sideways and The Station Agent in the comfort of their own homes without having to fetch them from the video store. Once that happens, independent film will finally start to make fiscal sense.
For the moment, though, independent filmmakers and producers remain trapped in a transitional phase. They are responsible for a fast-growing share of the best movies released in this country, but their work is almost impossible to see outside the largest American cities. I was in Washington on business a few weeks ago, and it was with a mixture of pleasure and surprise that I found myself free for a night and read in the paper that Me and You and Everyone We Know was showing at a multiplex near my hotel. I promptly caught a cab to the theater, which turned out to be part of a big- city chain that specializes in foreign and independent films, and congratulated myself on having gotten lucky.
Me and You and Everyone We Know, written and directed by the performance artist Miranda July, is one of those much-praised films that is falling between the cracks. Most of the big- media critics, Roger Ebert included, loved it, but it has yet to receive anything like a wide release, and my guess is that your best chance to catch it will be when it comes out on DVD. I can’t promise that you’ll like Me and You, but I found it quite moving, so much so that I saw it twice and was even more impressed the second time.
If you saw Ghost World, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Miranda July is up to in Me and You. Her subject is the loneliness of the suburban dweller whom postmodernity has deprived of the comforts of an unbroken family. All the principal characters are divorced, unmarried, or widowed adults and their children, and all of them long—mostly unsuccessfully—for some kind of intimacy. At the heart of the film is Christine (played with great purity by July herself), a video artist who doubles as a part-time chauffeur for senior citizens. One day she meets Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman at a mall, and falls in love with him at first sight. Newly separated from his wife, he is doing his best to raise his two boys, seven-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) and 14-year-old Peter (Miles Thompson), both of whom are in turn doing their best not to show how deeply the breakup of their parents’ marriage has hurt them. Into the lives of this unhappy quartet wanders an odd collection of variously lonely folk who, like Christine and Richard, are trying to figure out how to live in an indifferent world that is perfectly happy to leave them to their own devices.
What is striking about Me and You is its tone, which I can do no better than to describe as realistically idealistic. While July does not spare us the pathos implicit in the condition of her characters, she leavens it with sweetly fey comedy (discreetly underlined by the feather-light, Oscar-worthy background score of Michael Andrews). As she has explained in an interview, she sees their lives as not without hope:
This movie was inspired by the longing I carried around as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything. It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.
July’s use of the word “contorted” is significant, for queer and disturbing things happen throughout the film. Robby unknowingly wanders into an online sex chat room and is solicited by an anonymous adult. Peter is accosted by a pair of sexually venturesome classmates (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) who in turn are approached by a would-be pedophile who lacks the courage of his perversions. These encounters give the film an unsettled air of trouble in the making—you keep expecting something terrible to happen. Instead, something wonderful happens, flooding you with a disarming mixture of catharsis and relief which serves to drain away any lingering suspicions that the film’s happy ending might not have been earned.
Though poor distribution is part of the reason why Me and You and Everyone We Know has not been widely seen, I can’t imagine its having become a popular hit under even the most favorable of circumstances. It’s too quirky—and too disquieting. Indeed, I wouldn’t dream of recommending it to readers of Crisis who are uncomfortable with on-screen sex. Though nothing explicit is shown, what’s left to the imagination isn’t hard to puzzle out, and it will shock some people. (The film is rated R for “disturbing sexual content involving children.”) To this I would reply that July is doing nothing more than portraying honestly and with charm the sexual curiosity of the young, and that in any case her main narrative concerns lie elsewhere. Still, I can see how other viewers, especially those with children of their own, might disagree with me, and I hasten to say that this film, fine as it is, isn’t for everyone.
In addition, I’m not sure how fully July has plumbed the deeper social implications of her beautifully nuanced portrayal of life after marriage. I find the world she shows us to be almost too sad to contemplate, which is why the optimistic conclusion of Me and You and Everyone We Know is so powerful in its effect—and why I wonder whether that effect might be to some extent a matter of wishful thinking. This is Miranda July’s first feature film. It will be interesting to see what she thinks of it when she’s seen a bit more of life.