Miranda July is one of those arty types whose feet don’t quite touch the ground. Her filmmaking debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is like a trip inside her head, but don’t expect to understand her any better when the credits roll. It’s not that July’s inscrutable; it’s that there’s not much to “get.” She plays a version of herself in the movie: a performance artist named Christine who makes video installations using discarded snapshots, accompanied by her own fanciful narration. That’s pretty much July’s approach to movies as well. Her framing has an offhanded, “this is a moment in time” quality, and her actors look and behave like people trying not to be self-conscious about the camera pointing at them. Then July puts words in their mouths.
Recently divorced, neo-romantic shoe salesman Richard (played by John Hawkes) speaks lines that could’ve been cribbed from greeting cards and self-actualization manuals. Richard’s younger son Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) obsesses over ASCII art and poop, and he and brother Peter (Miles Thompson) idly bait sexual predators on Internet chat rooms. The teenaged Peter also fends off the advances of two bratty teenage teases who out-Ghost World the movie Ghost World, and he talks frequently with his preteen next-door neighbor, who uses her allowance to buy home appliances for a “hope chest.”
Me and You and Everyone We Know is basically a total quirkfest, Amerindie to the core. Though July finds a thick streak of prosaic romanticism in her low-rent L.A. suburban milieu, her emotional range runs from cute (exemplified by Christine, who puts pink stickers on everything she owns) to smarmy (exemplified by the movie’s knowing mockery of the contemporary art scene). What’s missing are recognizable human relationships. Sex comes up a lot, but it’s all theoretical. July doesn’t give her characters depth enough for us to imagine them being intimate or even lusty. Even Richard’s frosty relationship with his children seems contrived. If he’s supposed to be such a sweet guy, why do his kids treat him like a substitute teacher?
Richard’s implausibility isn’t the actor’s fault. Hawkes makes July’s manic dialogue sound natural, and the rest of the cast does as well, even when forced to say stuff like, “In the future, soup won’t be computerized…it’s a liquid.” And while July smears the broad strokes, she fusses impressively over the filigree. Me and You makes a lot of the way people decorate cookie-cutter homes with fragments of their personalities, and July identifies with that very human trait so strongly that she can make the image of a little girl smelling a shower curtain into something achingly poignant. Her movie may be aggravating and phony at times, but it’s studded with too many tiny jewels to discard completely. To miss it would be to miss scenes like the one where Richard watches his ex-wife brush her teeth—a private moment he no longer gets to share—or the one where Christine labels one of her shoes “Me” and one “You” and has them do a little dance of seduction and retreat. At times like that, visiting July’s head is like being inside an oblique, enchanting poem.