Quirk world Is Miranda July’s debut feature as good as everybody says? Since its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Miranda July’s comedy Me and You and Everyone We Know has emerged as one of the year’s most popular and critically acclaimed indie films. A critic friend recently opined that the film looks like a shoo-in to win the New York critics’ prize for the year’s best debut feature. Yet the approbation is not universal. I first saw July’s film a few weeks ago at New York’s new IFC Center. A few scenes into the show, a woman noisily scrambled from an upper row, and as she was barging through the exit door, she called out to the audience over her shoulder, “Enjoy this terrible movie!”
What separates those who are charmed by July’s creation and those with this woman’s reaction is, no doubt, a matter of taste. And in this case, taste has everything to do with the q-word. That’s right: Me and You and Everyone We Know is not just an indie comedy. It’s one of those that virtually every reviewer describes as “quirky.”
I’m not, however, about to suggest that whether or not the film tickles your fancy depends on whether or not you like comedies of the q-variety. Rather, it depends on what type of quirk you favor. After all, there is quirk and there is quirk. Jim Jarmusch makes one type of quirky comedy, Robert Altman quite another.
To get a fix on July’s type, it’s useful to know that her background is in performance art. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, she plays Christine, a performance artist who uses video recording in her work. As the film opens, we see a couple looking out at a romantic sunset on a tropical beach, and we hear their proclamations of love for each other. Turns out, though, that the couple on the beach is a postcard being videotaped by Christine, who supplies their voices herself, thereby giving vent to her own unsatisfied romantic longings and providing a distanced, ironic commentary on same simultaneously.
After this quirky introductory scene, the next thing we see is a bird on a branch. No, the bird isn’t being videotaped. But (as a cut soon reveals) it is being watched by a long-faced guy named Richard (John Hawkes), who, as it happens, has a painting of a bird on a branch on one of his walls. Richard is dreamily gazing at the real bird, it seems, as a means of distracting himself from what is going on in his life at the moment: His wife is leaving him. Meanwhile, the couple’s two boys, teenager Peter (Miles Thompson) and 6-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), are playing on a computer in their bedroom. Richard, as a prank, goes outside their window, douses his hand in lighter fluid, sets it on fire and waves at them.
This surreal moment is, of course, a painful mistake. Richard has forgotten that it is alcohol, not lighter fluid, that allows the trick to be accomplished without injury. Therefore he spends most of the rest of the movie with a bandaged hand: a visible emblem of both his determined foolishness and the movie’s full-bore quirkiness.
Richard works in a shoe store and, once his wife departs, has part-time care of his kids. Christine not only devotes herself to her performance art but also works for Eldercab, a taxi service for people too old to drive. These two are lovelorn and looking for connection. As you might suspect, the movie spends much of its length tracing their zig-zagging, fits-and-starts trajectory toward each other.
There are other plot strands too. Little Robby meets a woman in an online chat room and excites her interest with his discussion of, ahem, “poop.” Adolescent Peter develops a strange friendship with a 10-year-old neighborhood girl who keeps a hope chest, and offers himself up for a sexual experiment conducted by two teenage girls. These same girls also carry on a protracted flirtation with a local guy who writes out his fantasies and leaves them taped to his front window.
As this brief description may suggest, the movie feels like it might have developed as a series of performance-art sketches that gradually coalesced into a loose-knit narrative. The connecting thread is not, obviously, a tightly structured plot or a dominating conceit. Rather, what holds everything together is July’s particular observational style and sense of humor, which might be called an idiosyncratic form of postmodern whimsy.
Although the film seems to divide people into love-or-hate-it camps (with the former being far larger), my own reaction was somewhere in between, one of admired-it-with-reservations. The reservations mainly have to do with, first, the sense that this type of quirky comedy is an Amerindie genre so overpopulated that it really is a cliché at this point, and, second, the feeling that July’s form of quirk in some moments doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of being cutesy and contrived.
Almost by definition, this kind of comedy risks the characteristic weakness of TV sitcoms: Rather than exploring character through behavior, it simply sets up a series of character quirks and riffs on them until the final curtain. The artist who gets away with it is the one whose characters are believable and amusing enough to distract our attention away from how superficiality has displaced insight.
On the other hand, the main challenge that July set herself is one she accomplishes very handily. Her fictional world is so delicate that it might have come apart at any moment. It doesn’t, though, because she maintains its tone and precise set of nuances without faltering throughout. If this consistency evidences a species of genuine artistic vision, it also bespeaks a lot of hard, careful work in the film’s writing, rehearsal and performances. The fact that the movie feels so casual and offhanded is surely one of its hardest-won achievements.
It also has a quality that a friend of mine calls “zeitgeisty.” One of its subplots has Christine trying to get her work shown by an officious museum curator (Tracy Wright). There’s a scene where the curator and her assistant are considering prospective artists. (“Is she of color?” one asks. “No, but she’s a woman,” the other replies.) The curator says that one question that should be asked of any work is: Could it have been created at any time, or only right now?
The sense here is that the best art is that which bespeaks its precise moment in history. I’m not sure I buy that as any kind of ultimate aesthetic yardstick–and July herself implies that it can give us bad as well as a good art–but it is a virtue which Me and You and Everyone We Know can claim for itself. And that’s not just because July treats topics as trendy as the Internet and performance art. On a deeper level, the film captures a kind of emotional lassitude and distraction, a tentative and anxious hopefulness, that feels very much of the moment.
The film has other incidental felicities as well. One of my favorites was the performance of 6-year-old Brandon Ratcliff as Robby. This is one of those performances by a child actor that seems almost preternatural. Brandon supposedly told his parents at age 2 that he wanted to be a successful TV and film actor, and won his part in Me and You with a note-perfect first reading. He now he wants to be a director when he is a teenager and a doctor when he’s an adult. While wishing him well on both of those careers, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing much more of him before then–as we surely will of Miranda July.