‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ Is Still One of the Best Movies About the Internet

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Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” premiered at Sundance in late January 2005, a few short weeks before YouTube went live on Valentine’s Day the following month. MySpace was in its infancy, Twitter hadn’t even been conceived, and Facebook was still new enough that most people just used it to “poke” strangers they didn’t have the courage to wave at in class.

While Paul Haggis’ “Crash” typified the kind of movies people were making about modern dislocation (read: self-absolving security blankets that wanted you to think a little irony would be enough to erase society’s oldest stains), Miranda July’s first feature poked its head into arthouse theaters with the prognosis to a problem that most of us hadn’t been able to put a finger on yet. July’s debut feature wasn’t the first movie about the internet (a sub-genre that had by that point already run the gamut from “World on a Wire” to “Hackers”), but it may have been the first to recognize how we’d express ourselves through it, and how the utopian promise of “social media” would so plainly reveal how scared we are of getting close to each other.

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It’s the delicate but well-honed work of an outsider artist who’d always been attuned to the nature of modern boundaries; a dream-pop kaleidoscope that offers a raw, patchy, and unapologetically perverted look at the need for intimacy in an interconnected world. The technology of the last 10 years has transformed how we talk about these things, but “Me and You and Everyone We Know” remains so lucid and relevant precisely because it doesn’t have to sift through all of the irony and Silicon Valley shorthand that’s distorted how far removed from each other we often tend to feel.

July — who has since invented her own, very on-brand social media app — plays Christine Jesperson, an open-hearted bedroom artist (and part-time “ElderCab” driver) whose multimedia projects ache with the kind of vulnerability that might frighten people in public. Christine is introduced in media res as she puts the finishing touches on her latest video project, a primitive internet meme of sorts where she dubs her voice over a series of still photographs in a way that endows them with an immediacy that life almost never lets us experience in the moment.

Meanwhile, local shoe salesman Richard Swersey (John Hawkes) watches in silence as his wife finalizes their separation. He stares at a bird that sits on a branch outside his (ex) living room window, and wonders how something that close could still be so inaccessible. Or maybe he’s thinking about how store policy prohibits him from touching a shopper’s feet, even if they ask or need his help. He’d confide in his sons, but they’re young and busy making a bengal tiger out of ASCII art on their computer. Richard is ready for amazing things to happen, but every part of his world seems just out of reach. He runs onto the lawn and lights his arm on fire while his kids watch him self-immolate from inside. “It’s life,” Christine whispers in a disembodied husk. “And it’s happening. It’s really, really happening. Right now.”

But most of the people in Christine’s Los Angeles neighborhood — the kind of vacant, unexamined place that backdrops all of July’s best work — are often too afraid to own up to the urgency of all that, and so they settle for a secondhand version of the lives they want. As the film goes on and its tight mosaic of characters flitter around each other, July mines some awkward comic gold out of how people struggle to ask for the love they need. Everyone is available to each other in a way that the internet was just starting to make obvious at the time, but digital tools are already casting harsh relief on the distancing mechanism that people use to keep themselves from getting hurt by their own desires — on a world in which people can share the most intimate of experiences with a perfect stranger, and still not even be able to risk making direct contact with someone standing right in front of them.

One indelible scene in the film’s opening minutes cuts to the heart of July’s concern. Christine is driving a sweet ElderCab client named Michael (Hector Elias) along the highway when they notice that a little girl has left her goldfish in a plastic bag on top of her dad’s moving car the next lane over. The fish is just a few short feet away from Christine, and yet she’s powerless to save it. When the oblivious driver is cut off, the fish launches forward off his roof and lands on the trunk of the car in front of him, which prompts Christine to pull ahead of that car so she can control the speed of the fish car behind her.

“The best thing for that fish would be if he could just drive steadily forever,” Michael says as the goldfish slides backwards onto the highway. Christine is horrified that the little girl now has a front-row seat to watch her  pet get splattered all over the pavement, but her septuagenarian passenger takes it in stride: “At least we’re all in this together.” No filmmaker this side of Abbas Kiarostami has so tenderly explored the unique way in which cars allow people to occupy private bubbles in public spaces.

On a more literal and hilarious note, Richard’s computer-savvy sons have a lot of fun messing with a (not so) random woman on the internet. When 14-year-old Oeter (Miles Thompson) starts IM-ing about sex stuff with a stranger his six-year-old brother Robby (Brandon Ratcliff in a legendary Jonathan-Chang-in-“Yi Yi”-level child performance) begins offering some inspired suggestions for dirty talk. The subplot builds to a sweet-natured sight gag so good that the manager of the IFC Center had to reprimand people in the audience for laughing too hard during the movie’s initial run.

This whole thread of the story is seen through a child’s-eye-view of sexuality in a way that might no longer seem permissible, and it’s not the only part of the film to explore that squidgy territory. Another thread follows two precocious teen girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) as they play a queasy game of chicken with Richard’s middle-aged co-worker (Brad William Henke), who starts leaving tweet-length signs in his window that describe what he wants to do to them.

July’s staunch refusal to pass judgment on any of these people allows these scenes to cleave closer to Agnès Varda’s “Le Petit Amour” than Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” With the kind of text-based exchange that men have used to terrorize women and girls on the internet since the day the modem was invented, this unthreatening ballet of shame and desire becomes a full-blown spectacle that passersby just pretend to ignore. Even the subplot’s most prurient moments lack even a whiff of exploitation, as the film’s overpowering focus is on the more general interplay between openness and vulnerability — a timeless balancing act that July extrapolates into the central dynamic of the digital age.

“Me and You and Everyone We Know” is at its most humane and affecting when it keys into the little ways that we put walls between us, and how those walls are only getting easier to hide behind and harder to knock down. This is a movie in which two (or three) strangers anonymously fantasize about passing a log of poop back and forth between their butts forever, but kids can’t make small talk with their own father, and love can only be only expressed through a pair of shoes or an electronic Hallmark card that does all of the emotional heavy lifting for you.

Hypotheticals are intoxicating, but reality is a clear and present danger. Christine and Richard strike up a conversation in a meet-cute that’s shot like a scene in “Before Sunset,” and walks with them as they imagine a future together; they part on good terms, but when Christine loops back around to ask Richard for a ride, the whole thing is just too possible for him to take. This same crisis is refracted through an even harsher and more skewering light when Christine submits her video art to curator Nancy Harrington (the late, great Tracy Wright) — or tries to. Tape in hand, Christine ambushes Nancy at the contemporary art museum where she’s assembling a show called WARM: 3-D and Touch in the Digital Age, only for Nancy to insist that Christine submit her work via the mail. “But I’m so close…” Christine whimpers. The sequence ends with a perfect little button when Christine accidentally drops the video at Nancy’s feet, only for the curator’s assistant to pick it up and hand it back to the artist.

Christine has to find a way to get through to someone who’s so afraid of interpolating real life into her worldview that she only feels safe to engage with the world through her own professional detachment. At one point, Nancy sees a burger wrapper on the floor of her gallery, and we laugh because she assumes it’s part of the exhibit — the joke, it turns out, is on us. Her clenched fear isn’t foreign to us.

It’s a fear that drives her desire to seek connection online, and fear that keeps her from engaging with the doe-eyed girl who shows up to her museum with a dream in her hands. Nancy isn’t afraid of other people so much as opening herself up to a world where there’s so much love for the taking. We’re all afraid of how vulnerable we are when we reach for it. Ultimately, Christine can only get through to Nancy by recording a direct, personalized, ultra-intimate plea to the gatekeeper at the end of her video art.

“Could this have been made in any era,” Nancy asks her assistant about another piece, “or just now? What does it tell us about digital culture?” It’s an indication of the way the movie is both epochal and timeless, a far cry from the kind of cautionary movies made about the internet that people in subsequent years. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” tells us that — as Richard says — “your whole life could be better starting right now.” It’s just hard to see that sometimes. But at least we know. We’re all in this together.

“Me and You and Everyone We Know” is streaming on the Criterion Channel and IFC Unlimited.

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