The recipient of a special jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/actress Miranda July has gone on to face some critics' charges that her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is little more than a medley of quirks wrung from the indie-comedy corner of the Netflix catalog and strung together. While it's true that her ode to punch-drunk love has its share of touchstones throwing July's award, which was for "originality of vision," into ironic relief what sets her work apart from countless similar recycling projects is that hers has a solid emotional framework to hang its romantic and sexual oopsy-daisies on. Given the attractiveness of her cast and the spryness of her script, it seems churlish to complain that you've seen and heard glib angst like this tossed around too many times before. The movie is generic in the nonpejorative sense, and merits a welcome far warmer than mocking classification as Miranda and Me and Everything We've Ever Seen.
This is the good stuff you wade through years of outwardly similar dross to get to though its distinctiveness isn't immediately apparent. Richard (John Hawkes), a white man about to separate from his black wife, sets his own hand on fire in front of their two kids. He later claims it was an accident he was trying to dazzle the boys with a magic trick and opted for the wrong kind of fuel but the damage is done. Richard spends most of the movie ambling around with bandages on his hand and in a state of earnest, desperate near-dementia; we're likewise somewhat disoriented by the dawning realization that this shoo-in candidate for a breakdown is going to be our male lead. (It's also dodgy that he's promptly awarded shared custody of the kids, despite having performed a reasonably accurate Vietnamese-monk impression that DCF would find interesting, to say the least.)
At the same time, installation artist Christine (July) is trying to get her work under the nose of a snooty curator while working a day job that has her providing taxi service to retirees. Christine and Richard meet in the shoe store where the latter works; she's taken in by his poetic sincerity when he tries to emancipate her from the masochism he says she's indulging by refusing to jettison her uncomfortable shoes. He should know about masochism, and their meet-cute should be a pretentious dud; instead, we're ensnared by the warm élan with which Hawkes and July interpret the latter's clever scripted dialogue.
From there on in, it's uninterrupted viewing pleasure for anyone who's not afraid of a few wry kinks. The uncertain Christine/Richard courtship is the seriocomic well to which July keeps returning as she explores a series of witty subplots like the story of Andrew (Brad Henke), a sleazy co-worker of Richard's who gets caught up in a written yet very public flirtation with two slices of neighborhood jailbait (Najarra Townsend, Natasha Slayton). Both disgusted and titillated by his attentions, the girls practice their oral skills on Richard's oldest son, Peter (Miles Thompson), who remains nonplussed; he seems more profoundly touched by his visits with Sylvie, a far younger girl who's keeping a hope chest of housewares she intends to one day give to her husband and daughter. (Actress Carlie Westerman has a haunted nobility that recalls Napoleon Dynamite's Tina Majorino.) Peter's deepest passion, however, is for Net- surfing, which he does in the company of angelic younger sibling Robby (Brandon Ratcliff). Their favorite game? Enticing an anonymous pervert with talk of "poop."
It's seriously disconcerting to see tots blithely engaging in this sort of digital filth. What set of real-life parents signed off on their kids' participation in it, one wonders? And how is actor Ratcliff going to react in 10 years or so, when he finally discerns the full import of the coprophilic scenarios he was once heard describing in theaters across the nation? Happily, such concerns are largely beyond a critic's (or an audience's) responsibility. We can instead focus on the tender humor that makes July's freak show worth inhabiting. This filmmaker has obviously seen Todd Solondz's bracing Happiness; she even looks like its star, Jane Adams, whose Joy Jordan met the prospect of genuine intimacy with the same wide-eyed combination of horror and hopefulness as Christine. Solondz's characters, though, are typically destined to be crushed under the jackboot of each other's degeneracy. July has a gentler sensibility that makes her work equally appealing as a more benign cousin. An underlying belief in healing propels Me and You and Everyone We Know, uniting its characters of all ages and proclivities in a uniform and coherent statement: A wholesome connection is always just a touch (albeit the right touch) away. Though some of her interests may seem provocative to the point of being childish, July knows that, in matters of the heart, soul and groin, everybody has to grow up sometime.