Christmas in July

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
June 16 2005 5:38 PM

Christmas in July

In praise of Miranda July's sublime Me and You and Everyone We Know

An admirable and wondrously strange comic fairy tale. Click image to expand.
An admirable and wondrously strange comic fairy tale

The name "Miranda July" sounds like something a little girl might dream up in her room as she plays all the parts in a romance novel: Miranda, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, meaning admirable (with a hint of "wondrously strange"); July, which is like Tuesday or Wednesday (favorite fantasy girl names, I'm told), and is also suggestive of free-and-happy long days, hunting for seashells, and beach-house crushes. The Artist Known as Miranda July's debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (IFC Films), is, well, admirable and wondrously strange—as well as gorgeous, funny, dreamlike, mesmerizing, squirmy, and occasionally annoying, the way a borderline-precious solo performance can be. But if you get on the movie's wavelength, the annoying parts just melt into the ether.

July is, yes, a solo performance artist, and the whole script might have been written and acted out in her bedroom. That's how it begins: a slide on the wall of a man and woman on a beach, staring at a sunset, with July (as Christine) on her bed supplying the voices that pledge eternal love. When Christine meets and is instantly smitten with a newly single shoe salesman, Richard (John Hawkes), the father of two young boys, she stages other romantic bedroom dramas, one embodied by her two pink slippers, on which she has drawn the words "Me" and "You." (One slipper moves close and the other away, and vice versa.)

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July is a beautiful young woman, a bit of a beanpole, with blue-gray eyes, pale skin, and a dazed, self-conscious delivery. Partly this is due to her voice, which is flutelike, with little in the way of chest tones—it all comes out of her head. Solo performers, who must be themselves to the nth degree, can have a hard time getting out of their own heads and living inside other people's—a prerequisite for writing drama. July has made the leap to dramatist by turning everyone in this ensemble comedy into a kind of solo performer, acting out in the desperate hope of connecting. The soloists meet and circle around each other. Every communication is tenuous—and when an exchange hits home, treasurable.

This solo-performer universe is not just central to July's style. It's also her vision of the human condition. Me and You and Everyone We Know is a meditation on the mediated life. It's set in an increasingly privatized culture, in which face-to-face encounters are extraordinarily fraught and people reach out through online chat rooms, performance art, or, failing at the above, retreat into fantasy. The female characters could be stand-ins for July at key stages of her life. There is a 10-year-old girl, Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), who nurses a hope chest in her room, in which she saves articles from her life to present to her future true love. And there are two giggly but anxious teenagers, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), who egg each other on in their sexual experimentation, gleaning only from books and movies how they ought to "perform."

The male characters of Me and You and Everyone We Know aren't slighted: Their inner worlds are every bit as rich and weird. As Richard's wife (Jo Nelle Kennedy) packs her suitcases, he asks his boys, adolescent Peter (Miles Thompson) and 6-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), whether he looks (if they saw him on the street) like a man with kids and a family. The boys look at him blankly and go back to their computer screen. Richard's wife is black and these kids are caramel-skinned and breathtakingly beautiful: They might represent, for July, a triumphant synthesis, a reaching across a chasm that endures even when the bond that created them is broken. But Richard can't appreciate those fruits as his wife hits the road. He goes out to his lawn and sets fire to his hand—apparently a disastrously unsuccessful imitation of a trick his uncle used to do, but we only discover that later. What we see is a terrifying act of self-dramatization/immolation.

Richard's hand-scorching is as physically shocking as the film gets, but other scenes push the envelope: Richard's neighbor articulating smutty fantasies to the two teenage girls (in an extremely original, if not wholly credible manner); Richard's older boy receiving a sexual favor in return for completing a kind of survey; and the 6-year-old having cyber-sex (poop plays a breathtaking role). Although the kind of loneliness and acting out that July explores can lead (especially in teens) to anorexia or bulimia, self-mutilation, and even suicide, Me and You and Everyone We Know sustains the tone of a comic fairy tale in which despair is leavened by oddball humor—by the surprising things that pop out of stricken peoples' mouths. It's also lightened by Mike Andrews' music, with its plinking synthesizers and shimmery, organ-and-choir washes of sound. Along with the script, this score might have been written (and recorded) by someone fooling around in a bedroom.

Every scene of Me and You and Everyone We Know contributes to the theme. July even finds a place to go meta: Christine wants a tape of a bedroom performance piece to be shown in an exhibit on digital culture at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The director, Nancy (Tracy Wright), is a buttoned-up woman who refuses to accept Christine's tape face-to-face and can barely look her in the eye. But in one of the film's most delightful scenes, Christine gets through to her via video: the only time when, alone in her office at night, staring at a monitor, Nancy lets down her guard. (Well, there is one other time, but that's a surprise.)

The acting is marvelous, all the way down the line. As Richard, Hawkes looks a little like Vincent Gallo, only with much less sharp features—and he's way, way nicer. But the resemblance to indie cinema's most seething solipsist helps to give him an edge. He and July share my favorite scene in the movie, in which the two, who barely know each other, turn a block-long stroll into a metaphor for the journey of a couple through a relationship. It's as enchanting as anything in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (high praise). Just before that, Christine stares at John's bandaged hand and asks, "How did you do that?" and he says, "Do you want the long version or the short version?" and Christine replies, instantly, without missing a beat, "The long one." She later requests the short version, too, but that's for the sake of completeness. In the universe of Miranda July, love means never saying "the short version." ... 2:37 p.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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