Some time ago, I rolled my eyes when I saw the trailer for Me, You, and Everyone We Know. I’m not a huge fan of the cute and indie genre, and found the whole strangers engaging in intimate conversations revolving around the metaphoric significance of sidewalks and blistered ankles thing kind of gross. Due to the recent attention July has gotten for The Future, and the (generally) positive reviews of Me, You, and Everyone We Know, I decided to give it a second chance. I was pleasantly surprised.
Make no mistake – the movie is definitely cute and indie. Characters are prone to oddball comments uttered in deadpan sincerity. For instance, after July’s character tells a shoes salesman (who will shortly become her love interest) that her shoes always rub against her ankles because they’re unusually low, he looks up and says, “You think you deserve that pain but you don’t.” When an absentminded father accidentally sets his daughter’s newly purchased goldfish on top of their car, and July, seeing the bagged fish on top of the moving car, recognizes the inevitability of its fast-approaching death, she says, “I want you to die knowing you were loved.” With (maybe) the exception of a few severely religious acquaintances, I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t talk like this. This relates to the following complaint: the world that July creates is populated by characters flattened by their naïveté and quirkiness. We get doe-eyed caricatures who are static and simple in their consistency, and therefore unrelatable to a nuanced and inconsistent audience.
However, that a movie is unrealistic doesn’t—and shouldn’t—count against it. Realism is neither an essential desideratum of movies/books/etc., nor even the cinematic norm. (One of the reasons why Blue Valentine was met with such high praise, for example, is precisely because of its exceptionally accurate portrayal of the language of relationships.) Also, it’s not strictly true that audiences are only responsive to rounded characters. We may relate to flat characters in virtue of sharing the very characteristics that they serve to parody, e.g. Scrooge-like frugality, Popular Girl hauteur, Band Geek nerdiness, and so on. Further, we should be careful in drawing a distinction between flat and (what I will call) stylized characters. Flat characters are relatively uncomplicated characters who do not undergo any substantial change throughout the course of a movie or book—think of the stock cheerleader, nihilist, philanthropic aunt, etc. I think of stylized characters, on the other hand, as characters whose static features are deliberately emphasized for effect—a good example of stylized characters can be found in the works of Wes Anderson. The difference between flat and stylized is subtle, especially since both types possess static characteristics (Margot from The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, is Mysterious and a Compulsive Liar, Max Fischer of Rushmore is an Ostentatious Youth). I think the difference comes down to this: the static features of stylized characters constitute a device through which a more nuanced, multi-layered inner life is communicated. Flat characters are two-dimensional; stylized characters have idiosyncrasies that can be illustrated in two dimensions, but there’s a lot more to them than that.
Miranda July’s characters are definitely stylized, not flat. The Miranda July brand of cutesy is a self-consciously crafted aesthetic that is aggressively projected onto a world that may not actually confirm to her vision of it. She gives us hints of this. Shortly after a paradigmatically indie repartee between July’s character and her love interest about how the street they’re walking on is like the long and memorable life they’ve led together, a scene follows in which July’s attempt to get into his car is met with hostility. In a disorienting departure from the mood of their last exchange, Richard accuses her, “You’re acting like I’m just this regular man. Like a man in a book who the woman in the book meets,” and tells her to get out of his car. July’s face falls in what feels like the momentary faltering of a performer in the face of a particularly hostile audience.
July’s response to this is to get into her car, and begin a FUCK!-screaming spree that terminates in the writing of “FUCK” with a black marker on her windshield. This scene is wonderful, and demonstrates what I mean by a “stylized” character. We see through July’s penchant for cutesy forms of expression to a lonely individual whose oddities are her way of coping with a reality that is actually pretty shitty. In the real world, parents get divorced, young sexually curious girls are taken advantage of by seedy older men, and a disturbingly large percentage of the population are stuck with menial, soul-sucking jobs. In the same way that many of July’s detractors don’t find her vision particularly interesting, July doesn’t find the bleakness very interesting. Her response to this is to use it as a palimpsest over which to construct her own more hopeful vision.
She’s attacked by a lot of people for her “twee” vision. I myself am not a fan of the twee aesthetic. However, I think that the particular way that July manages twee is rather admirable, and offsets my natural discomfort/dislike of the genre.