In her exhilarating debut as a feature-film writer/director, and also (naturally) as her own star, the conceptual artist Miranda July tells a story of everyday life in which danger stalks her plaintive characters like a shadow at sunset. Yet nobody finally gets hurt, except in the emotional sense. And even then, all it takes to begin to heal is a little fresh air.
July's beautiful, delicate work exists in a strange cinematic limbo: handsomely filmed, yet with nothing much resembling what you might call "style" -- not what you'd expect from the milieu of conceptual art, which can so easily collapse into showy pretense. It's at once completely real and completely otherworldly, possibly profound but at least very interesting, and never less than humane and thoroughly in control, just as a work of art should be.
The central characters in Me and You are Christine (portrayed by July), a wanna-be artist who operates a one-car jitney service for the elderly, and who wants an icy art museum curator to look at her spoken-word video; and Robert (John Hawkes), a department-store shoe salesman newly separated from his wife and trying to make his dumpy apartment feel like home to his sons, one who's about 15, the other who's 7.
Both Christine and Robert are thoughtful, lonely and searching, just like the people around them. Robert's pal at work begins an erotic flirtation, via dirty little notes taped to his window, with two high-strung pre-18-year-old girls exploring their palpitating sexuality. The curator is preparing a exhibition called "Warm: 3-D and Touch in the Digital Age," and she bristles when an artist uses a real crumpled yellow fast-food hamburger wrapper in his installation piece (she expected every object in the piece to be artificial). Rebecca, a prodigious Little Miss, lives next door to Robert and has her entire life planned out. Robert's sons, dangerously, spend too much time in Internet chat rooms.
All of these details are rife with purpose in July's tale of people who come furtively together and then pull quickly apart, repeating this doleful, stressful pas de deux until someone finally steps on someone else's toes, thus initiating a first touch.
July writes quirky, hyper-attenuated, but rarely opaque dialogue for her hyper-real characters: It's how people might talk if they could put words to their complicated whirl of feelings. They observe the world carefully and construct their own quietly riveting metaphors for it, so every scene, every line and every gesture in Me and You is nine months pregnant with meaning, and very often bizarrely or dryly funny.
And yet, July's characters are disturbingly authentic, almost as if we're looking at them turned inside out (a shirt is no less functional, and no less obviously a shirt, if you wear it that way).
When Rebecca inquires about the longevity of an electrical appliance, a clerk tells her not to worry about such things because everything will be computerized in 20 years anyway. Rebecca: "Soup won't be computerized." Clerk: "Why not?" Rebecca: "It's a liquid." In this exchange Rebecca says what any precocious child might think to say to an adult who seems to be dismissing her. But why would the clerk ask, "Why not?" And yet it makes sense that she would.
Me and You opens with Christine creating her performance video, although we don't know immediately what she's doing. It sounds at first like a dialogue between two friends, with one telling the other to be free, brave, vivacious, fantastic, courageous, graceful, and all those other maudlin things that self-help books and pop psychology sell us to believe. It's enough to make your eyes roll out of your head, especially once you learn that she's talking to (or with) herself.
But then July realizes and dramatizes these concepts as her film gradually blossoms into an American beauty. It's what cinema can be in the hands of an artist with something to say and nothing to lose by actually saying it. Her next film as a writer/performer has an equally intriguing title: Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody? Imagine the sadness in answering "no."
July packs every moment of Me and You with ideas and sensations, from cogitations on the nature of love and loss to discreet explorations of teen-age sexuality and social order. Just how unstable are these characters? How likely are they to do something dangerous? July challenges us to do what we see Christine doing in the opening scene: to have that conversation with ourselves, and then to share what we learn with others -- just as she, the artist, and Christine, her alter ego, do in and with the film.
If this all sounds somewhat odd and serious, then please, go see Batman Begins or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, two much more conventional summer films. (Tim Burton ceased being "original," if no less entertaining, about four or five fantasy worlds ago). Me and You and Everyone We Know is the summer's grownup blockbuster, very gently performed -- July herself is a rather droning actress, but not difficult to grow accustomed to -- and deeply committed to both showing and telling (that is, dramatizing and symbolizing) the nature of our humanity.