Weekend film roundup: All the whimsy you can handle

The latest films from Michel Gondry and the Miyazaki clan are fun, strange stories.

The We and the I

Whatever else you want to say about Michel Gondry, he has the virtue of being unpredictable. One of his films is a straight-up classic (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Others are underrated gems (Human Nature, Be Kind Rewind) — or so I maintain against strenuous detractors. Even the seemingly random collabo Dave Chapelle’s Block Party seemed to work out well, although I draw the line at defending the atrocity of his last film, The Green Hornet. He’s also one of the only directors who can keep one foot in the world of commercials and music videos while still maintaining a strong artistic integrity and voice in his personal work.

His latest, The We and the I, is another departure. Developed with a group of Bronx teenagers who play versions of themselves (or, at any rate, whose characters have the same names as the actors), it follows the teens on a bus ride home on the last day of school. Various dramas play out as the kids struggle with all the timeless issues (bullying, sexuality, self-expression) as well as the big new one that’s raised its head with their generation, the ability to document and share every embarrassing moment.

With the young cast of first-time actors, the film by necessity has a sometimes amateurish feel. Gondry’s trademark whimsy comes through in occasional fantasy sequences that break up the narrative, hinting that his sense of childlike play fits in well with these actual kids. More than once, I found myself asking “if I didn’t know this was a Gondry film, what would I think?” I could only conclude that I would find it a sometimes clumsy but ultimately charming movie. In that sense, it’s admirable that someone at the career stage where Gondry is now can still make one.


From Up on Poppy Hill

The latest from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is a true family project, co-written by the famous animator and directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki. But the son isn’t merely carrying on the family tradition. Instead of the magic realism and dreamlike imagery of his father’s films, From Up on Poppy Hill is a sweet, whimsical coming-of-age story.

Set in 1964, the film has two overlapping narratives. Umi is a young girl haunted by the memory of her father, who died in the Korean War. At her school, a group of boys are fighting to prevent the destruction of “the clubhouse,” a decrepit building where they study and work with various academic clubs. Umi develops a crush on Shun, one of the movement’s leaders.

Though the tone is different from that of the elder Miyazaki’s work, the film shares his impeccable aesthetic. The beauty of the animation is in the small details: piles of dusty paper in the clubhouse, rust stains on the rails of a tugboat, the almost impressionist rendering of forest leaves. Miyazaki fils also deploys some simple, subtle but brilliant artistic touches: old black-and-white photos are depicted as simple pencil drawings, and a half-remembered childhood dream is rendered as an incomplete sketch.

The story itself has a twist that’s a bit corny. “It’s like some cheap melodrama,” one of the characters sighs, but this mildly clever self-deprecation doesn’t make the remark any less true. Melodramatic though it may be, though, it’s pulled off with genuine feeling, which is always the important thing.

With a slower pace and a less formulaic structure than the Hollywood model, the film may be a bit boring for a younger audience here in the West. But for fans of old-school animation and/or Japanese culture in general, it’s a no-brainer; not anyone’s idea of a major work, but a thoroughly pleasant diversion. ■