Me and You and Everyone We Know
dir. Miranda July
Opens Fri July 1.

Miranda July's feature-film debut is delicate and tense, a movie with a sensibility so powerful that it seems to expand out of the movie theater and onto the sidewalk. Against a waterlogged electronic score by Michael Andrews, her characters bubble-wrap belongings, eulogize goldfish, draw ASCII tigers, tap quarters against bus stop poles, wear inspirational shirts that can only be read in the mirror, press dot stickers for good luck, flash their underwear at leering guys, and light themselves on fire. The movie is set in Portland (characters refer to Burnside Street and Laurelhurst Park) but it was shot in L.A. (witness the palm trees), and the discrepancy serves to displace the story from either setting: "I would never do a movie where it's really important where it takes place," July told me in an interview. Hers is a fantastical world where the most important contours are human shapes, where intense sexual longing collides with the paradoxical wish to escape your own skin, where those who have power try to abdicate it, and those who are powerless act out in agonizing, self-deceiving ways.

The person who lights his hand on fire is a shoe salesman named Richard (John Hawkes); he performs this spectacular ritual in the first few minutes of the movie, ostensibly to impress his kids with the gravity of his imminent divorce. His gawky, mixed-race sons, Peter (Miles Thompson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), are nonplussed. Meanwhile, a multimedia artist named Christine (July) works in her bedroom, recording a conversation to accompany a found photograph. The picture is of a man and a woman facing a blazing sunset. Christine speaks for the woman: "If you really love me, then let's make a vow." In a goofy drawl that will sound familiar to fans of July's own multimedia oeuvre, she voices the man's assent. The woman recites: "I'm going to be free. I'm going to be brave. I'm going to live each day as if it were my last. Fantastically, courageously, with grace." These two scenes are intercut: We hear July's spacey incantation in voiceover, the dialogue simple to the point of naiveté, as Richard, standing in his front yard, collapses onto the grass and tries desperately to beat the flames out.

It's difficult to reconcile what it feels like to watch Me and You and Everyone We Know with the naked facts of its plot. Richard and Christine's push-pull courtship echoes the screwball comedies of another era, and from their initial narrative juxtaposition, we immediately suspect that they're fated to fall in love. In the hands of another filmmaker, the obstacles in the way of their shared future would be amusing filler. Miranda July refuses to admit anything into her movie that doesn't strike directly at her point, and she's far less interested in keeping us entertained than in making us squirm. In scene after interlocking scene, the ensemble cast reproduces the dizzying tension of awkward (sometimes inappropriate) relationships in their tentative early stages.

The clandestine world of the neighborhood children proves fertile territory. Two precocious teenage girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) dare each other into ever-riskier sexual experiments, including a memorable series of scenes in which they incite a much older man to "talk dirty" to them. Richard's boy Robby (a fantastic performance by Brandon Ratcliff, who was 6 when the film was made) seduces an internet admirer with his age-appropriate interest in poop. In situations of terrifying suspense, Ratcliff, with his deep brown eyes and eerily intense gaze, becomes the film's crucial character. Robby has no true sexual drive—when his brother explains that "bosom" (which he mispronounces) is "a nice word for titties," Robby immediately asks where his mother is—but his lack of ego boundaries feels primordially familiar. It's easy to miss the moment when Robby kicks a cardboard box again and again as he walks with it, each time saying, "Ow, stop kicking me, ow, stop kicking me." But it's breathtaking to behold the scene at the end of the movie in which Robby believes he holds the same power over nature. (I'm being vague because it's better if the image surprises you.) His confusion over what he can control, over where he ends and the rest of the world begins, is the beating heart of this movie. It is also one of July's personal obsessions. "This is often one of my big issues," she said, "boundaries, just sort of melting into things."

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To read the complete transcript of Annie Wagner's interview with Miranda July, click here.