Me and You and Everyone We Know, the new film from writer, director, and performance artist Miranda July, walked off with prizes at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. An audience and critical favorite, it follows an ensemble cast of characters, each of whom is longing to connect with another human being in a cold, harsh world. It’s part drama and part romantic comedy, but its appeal is unmistakably a mystery.
As an actress, July is annoying as hell, with a quirkiness so labored that she accomplishes nothing so much as beg for our attention. Every gesture, every facial expression, every utterance feels calculated. Though she is playing an insecure character, her own self-regard is never in doubt. So pronounced is her narcissism that it borders on psychological exhibitionism.
This is not to say the whole film is a waste. The ensemble structure works unusually well, even if some of the sections drag, and July obviously has a way with child actors. Three of the four best performances are turned in by young children.
Me and You and Everyone We Know is a film in which every character hungers for, if not love, at least a close connection. Christine (July) is a lonely video artist who is putting together an installation she hopes will be included in a contemporary art exhibition. One “skit” on the tape consists of a photo of a man and woman. In back-and-forth dialogue, voiced by Christine herself, the two declare eternal love to one another. In a second performance piece, she addresses the camera directly while stopping and starting a tape recorder that contains the sounds of people cheering — as if the crowd were conveying its approval of her.
Christine’s day job consists of driving nursing-home residents on their daily errands. One afternoon she accompanies a client to a shoe store and instantly becomes smitten with the sad-sack salesman who waits on them. Richard (John Hawkes) is trying to put his life back together after a divorce he clearly did not want. He has joint custody of his sons, seven-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) and fourteen-year-old Peter (Miles Thompson), both of whom find their father exceedingly strange.
Richard considers himself a total loser, but confides to fellow shoe salesman Andrew (Brad Henke) that he is “prepared for amazing things to happen,” adding, “I want to be swept off my feet.” But when Christine tries to do just that, he panics. An awkward courtship follows in which Christine basically stalks Richard.
July the writer is interested — make that fixated — on the emerging sexuality of children. Two fourteen-year-old girls who figure prominently lament that “No one has ever talked dirty to us,” and they try to seduce the thirtyish Andrew. Though he has no intention of complying, he does agree to leave sexually explicit messages on his window for the girls to read every day. Determined to expand their sexual horizons, the two decide to experiment on an embarrassed Peter, who much prefers the company of Sylvie (Carlie Westerman, looking for all the world like a pint-size Karen Allen), the non-sexually-threatening ten-year-old who lives next door.
Robby, meanwhile, is innocently exchanging e-mails with somebody he meets in an Internet chat room, totally oblivious to the fact that the woman is into kinky sex and misconstruing everything he writes. Much of their banter concerns a novel usage for “poop.” While July’s attention on sexual matters seems a bit extreme, perhaps it’s an accurate reflection of today’s culture. Certainly, kids are exposed now to things — chat rooms and X-rated Web sites — that earlier generations were not.
As a director, July coaxes terrific performances from just about everyone. It’s July herself who proves so irritating onscreen. Nothing about her feels authentic; even her spontaneity has a calculated feel. She seems to be begging the audience to find her adorable — and not just any old adorable, but adorable in a childlike way. It’s one thing to hang socks on your ears in a department store; it’s another to do so with the express purpose of trying to draw attention to yourself. And that’s what July’s on-screen antics feel like.
The trick with a role like Christine is to make viewers care about a character they would normally dismiss; it’s being embarrassed for somebody at the same time that you feel compassion toward her. A strong performance would make viewers want to cringe and then to care. July got the cringe part right.