Me and You doesn’t feel like a typical Bernardo Bertolucci film. While some of the themes of his non-epic character dramas is there, what isn’t there are the beautiful vistas, bright colours, and enchantingly foreign (for us North Americans) locales. Frankly, Me and You feels more like something from Wes Anderson. It’s a movie about an introspective loner type who tries to create his own oasis away from the insanity of everyday life in a grimy basement, surrounded by dust, dirt and discarded artefacts of his mother’s home. Thinking more about it, there may only be three things that separate this from an Anderson film: it’s in Italian, it’s got some darker tones, and it lacks the elaborate mise-en-scène that Anderson’s basement hideaway surely would have had.
Bertolucci, of course, is a little more grounded than Anderson. His “hero,” Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), is not your typical teen from central casting. Betrayed by his out of control afro, a noticeable amount of acne, and a surly disposition, Lorenzo is not your usual teenage character in a cinematic sense. He’s highly inquisitive, but almost annoyingly so. He’s kind of a know-it-all, doesn’t socialize much with his peers at school – if at all – and in one perfectly Bertolucci-scene, probes his mother about questions of incest in the face of humanity’s post-apocalyptic doom, over dinner of course. And if you didn’t already know that Lorenzo goes against the grain, there’s a scene where we walks down the hall in the opposite direction of all his school mates, like a trout trying to swim upstream against a raging river.
As the rest of his class heads up to the mountains for a week of skiing and snowboarding, Lorenzo plots a different escape: a week to himself in the basement of the apartment building he lives in with his mother. One can’t help but think of last summer’s indie hit The Kings of Summer, another film about adolescents trying to escape, in that case by living in the fort in a clearing in the woods. Like those kids, Lorenzo really has nothing to escape from. His mother is kind, they live fairly well off, he goes to a nice school, his absentee father provides him with pocket money, and if it weren’t for his anti-social tendencies, he could probably get by quite pleasantly without retreating into the basement like a magpie to enjoy a hassle-free week reading Interview with a Vampire and eating junk food.
Upsetting Lorenzo’s perfection is the arrival of his half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco), who barges into the basement to look for knick-knacks. Olivia, as we learn, has a drug problem, and has been cast out from her extended family because of it. Cut off from her father, banned from the premises by her stepmother, and with no where else to go, Olivia spends the week with Lorenzo in the basement, much to his chagrin and disappointment. Through helping Olivia go cold turkey, Lorenzo struggles with his own desire for solitude with his sister’s need for someone’s help. Of course, they both learn something about each other in the process.
The film’s storyline might be a little too contrived for the savvy viewer, as obviously movie logic dictates that two people with not just different but clashing personalities will become friends if you leave them alone in a room long enough, like, famously, The Breakfast Club. Based on Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel of the same name – with a screenplay credited to Ammaniti, Bertolucci, Umberto Contarello and Francesca Marciano – Me and You has the added potency of being inspired by a true story. The reality is that the movie, which takes place almost entirely within the closed, cramped set of the basement, depends on whether or not the two leads engage you.
The naturalistic performance of the main actors is also an asset. Antinori and Falco are interesting performers that portray well the drives and motivations of their characters even when they’re not talking about it. Antinori wears this semi-permanent scowl for most of the time he’s in Olivia’s presence, and he also utilizes well various ticks that suggest Lorenzo might be a bit obsessional, but that inference is never glaring. Falco, meanwhile, swings wildly between being tightly wound and emotionally exposed. There’s an interesting subtext to Olivia and Lorenzo’s conversations as Olivia considers just how much about her drug-addled life her sheltered brother might be able to take.
But even though the story’s supposed to be about Lorenzo coming to terms with the outside world and being forced to leave his shell, there’s very little threat from that outside world on his utopia aside from Olivia. I guess no one ever comes down to this basement storage, or has even an iota of curiosity or concern of the sudden influx of ants in a residential building (Lorenzo’s ant farm becomes a casualty of his and Olivia’s sibling struggle). Lorenzo’s mom, although obsessed with staying in touch, seems a little too easy convinced that her anti-social son now gets along so well with his classmates when he forgets to call her because of all the fun they’re having. She also seems oddly gullible when Olivia, posing as a never-heard-of before teacher, gives assurances that everything’s fine.
Speaking of Olivia, the screenplay seems to play with the idea that her life is much darker than she let’s on, or then the film is willing to portray, but one can’t be 100 percent sure if you’re sensing something real, or maybe reading a little too much into the situation. There’s a fine line between playing coy and being vexing in your intention. Maybe it’s because this is a Bertolucci movie that your mind goes to the worst case scenario, but it might have benefited both characters a little more if Lorenzo had been shaken out his shell by a bit of information about Olivia’s a real life. It also would have been a little cathartic for Olivia to share something and realize how far down the rabbit hole she had gone.
On top of all that, the film leaves things off at an ambiguous place, with Lorenzo and Olivia making two pretty big promises to each other that go entirely against the instincts they’ve demonstrated throughout their lives, and the film. Do they succeed? That’s the question. Me and You doesn’t put its two main characters through anything too strenuous, but what drama they did face was played quite compellingly by the actors, and Bertolucci manages to keep the walls of the potentially claustrophobic set from making the movie feel too small. The story is engaging enough, even if it felt like the director was holding back, but a 73-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci working at partial power is still better than most directors working at 110 percent.
With solid performances and decent drama, Me and You isn’t Bernardo Bertolucci’s best, but it’s an engaging and enjoyable enough film from a master of the craft. What it lacks in punch, it makes up for in effort.