RATING |

After an unsuccessful attempt at blockbusters (The Green Hornet), Michel Gondry continues to test his bounds as a filmmaker with The We and the I.

Hitching onto a Bronx bus on the last day of school, the film eavesdrops on a racially diverse assortment of teens as they seize their last chance to joke with and jab at each other before summer. Working with a cast of non-actors and a semi-improvised script, the film blends neorealism, documentary, and pure fantasy into a fly-on-the-wall portrayal of the way teens navigate their relationships with one another and with themselves.

The trouble is that these genres contradict rather than complement one another, resulting in a film that suffers from an identity crisis.

Teens line up to collect their phones from a storage facility at the beginning of The We and the I. The story doesn't begin until they're switched on and tuned in, but the technology is merely a factor in their social interactions. It captures and repeats reality, but never supplants it.

Gondry doesn't aim for a profound statement on today's youth. He's more interested in aligning it with past generations, and speaking to the universality of adolescence. Rather than grounding the parallels in reality, he references teen film conventions. The recycled formulas become tangled in the free-flowing realism that Gondry captures, then corrupts.

With a cast using their real names and histories to inform their characters, Gondry mines a rich field and often uncovers moments of sublimity. When a gay couple break up over a fling with a female, the tears are unstaged and contagious. But too often the dialogue is overtly moralizing or didactic, and self-consciously delivered.

Organic interactions are interrupted by Gondry's words, or abandoned in favor of fantasy sequences. The film's verisimilitude too often takes a backseat to conventional storytelling and Gondry's whimsical aesthetic. By the time a teacher bursts into papier-mâché flames, even the crude semblance of cinéma vérité is obliterated.

Like the best documentarians, Gondry finds elegance in the mundane. In choosing to fuse genres, he takes one risk while abstaining from another. It's a fun ride for the most part, with a bumping soundtrack and genuine moments of warmth and heartbreak. But one can't help but wish Gondry had simply let the camera roll, and let the kids speak for themselves.EndText

Contact Elizabeth Horkley at ehorkley@philly.com.