Quirkiness usually sounds the death knell for a movie, but in this debut feature from performance artist Miranda July the whimsy is carried off with such deadpan dexterity that it mostly charms rather than curdles. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is a basically a piece about the difficulty people have making emotional connections with others, done in a multi-character, theme-and-variations style–something which pretty much dictates its narrative trajectory. And it includes elements whose cuteness occasionally threatens to cross the line into the saccharine. But for the most part it avoids the pitfalls, even in one subplot that, if played less adeptly, might have been positively creepy, and emerges as remarkably warm and winning.
Judy plays Christine, a sad-eyed artist trying unsuccessfully to get her work exhibited in the local gallery. She just makes ends meet by acting as a driver for residents of an elder home; she’s especially close to one of her customers, who’s romancing a terminally ill woman. But Christine has a romantic epiphany of her own: while visiting a nearby department store, she takes a shine to Richard (John Hawkes), a disheveled but likable clerk in the shoe department, whose wife has just left him for another man but left their two sons, 14-year old Peter (Miles Thompson) and 7-year old Robbie (Brandon Ratcliff) behind with him. The halting relationship that develops between them is played in counterpoint to his boys’ equally curious adventures. Somber Peter is accosted by two aggressive classmates who enlist him in judging their respective expertise in providing sexual pleasure (the two have already entered a curious hands-off conversation with Richard’s fellow clerk, conducted mostly by signs he posts in his window), while connecting with a neighbor girl named Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), a preternaturally mature kid stocking a hope chest with all manner of small appliances and already visualizing her dream home. Meanwhile Robbie gets involved in an e-mail exchange with a woman who mistakes his childishly scatological suggestions for hot come-ons.
Admittedly on paper this all sounds precious or cute or, in the case of the material involving the kids, more than a little tasteless. (Making it potentially even raunchier is the fact that Robbie and his much older correspondent eventually make plans to meet, and do–a turn that could easily go sour.) And it’s all accompanied by a score by Mike Andrews that’s designed to project a “magical” quality.
Yet “Me and You” doesn’t dissolve into either saccharine banality or adolescent smarm. For almost the entire distance it maintains a tone both affectionate and gentle, sidestepping the tendency to go too far over the top. (An early scene involving a goldfish is an perfect example of the balance it maintains.) On occasion its passivity and deliberate grunginess can seem affected, but that’s a forgivable offense in light of its amiable attitude. The cast helps mightily to sustain the fragile mood. Judy isn’t the most exciting presence–at times her faintly grumpy shyness makes her resemble a young Penny Marshall–but as director she gets very good responses from Hawkes, in whose hands Richard emerges as a charming eccentric, and from the young performers. Ratcliff, a natural scene-stealer, will probably get most of the attention, but the gangly, dour Thompson is even better, especially when teamed with the astonishingly self-possessed Westerman as the punctilious Sylvie. Nobody will accuse the picture of being technically slick, but Chuy Chavez’s cinematography and Aran Mann’s production design give it an appropriately lower-middle-class, homely feel.
The title of Judy’s debut is prescient: it enumerates all those who should embrace a movie that’s sweet without being sugary and quirky without being insufferable.