Working with first-time actors playing versions of themselves, Michel Gondry has crafted an exuberantly chaotic vision of a teenage moment in time in "The We and the I." The feature, set on the last day of the school year, jumps back and forth among a group of Bronx high-school students as they ride the bus home.
Their fictitious route, on a real city bus, takes far longer than an actual cross-borough commute would. But the trip, beginning in bright afternoon and ending in twilight, is a figurative flight as well as an earthbound echo chamber of empty yammering and dramas both petty and huge.
Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") gets the way all of it feels huge to the kids. He shapes the rough-edged collection of stories with an unflagging kinetic energy (the cinematographer is Alex Disenhof). Bringing his flair for jaunty visuals to flashback and fantasy sequences, he never pulls away for long from the action on the bus, with vintage tracks by Young MC fueling the ride.
Released for the summer, the kids retrieve their cellphones from the bodega that holds them, for a fee, while they're in school. Boarding the bus, they instantly claim it as theirs: their stage for tormenting one another and, especially, any unfortunate civilian who might be on board. There's plenty of clownish bullying, and with it the specifically adolescent joy in being shocking. But the public forum dwindles as the bus gradually empties, and the rowdy group dynamics shift to more intimate exchanges that reveal wounds, aches and a readiness to separate from the pack.
That's particularly true for Teresa (Teresa Lynn), who doesn't fit in with the yakety girls, and Michael (Michael Brodie), the handsome, relatively quiet member of a trash-talking trio of guys. Teresa takes refuge, such as it is, with these back-of-the-bus hotshots; by the time she and Michael are the last two students aboard, they've forged a new understanding.
Moving somewhat obviously toward denouement, the film hits a false note or two. But mainly it's exhilarating in its refusal to make smooth what's messy, inchoate and tenaciously alive.
'The We and the I'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart, West Los Angeles