Despite having ensured that his name will always be synonymous with a certain millennial hipster-kitsch style, music-video director turned filmmaker Michel Gondry has never shied away from girding his imaginative, willfully analog fantasias with flesh-and-blood resonance. When you think back now to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), you don’t fixate on the tearaway sets or surreal bed-on-a-beach scenes; what sticks with you is the emotional turmoil its heartbroken characters endure. Gondry’s latest starts out with a typically art & crafts–cutesy flourish, as a tiny boom-box bus motors through the Bronx, blaring Young MC’s “Bust a Move” before being run over by its real-life counterpart. Other than a few quick concessions to quirk (a cutaway to two youngsters dressed like grannies, a community-college drama department’s $1.98 version of Hell), that’s about as self-consciously goofy as his tale of outer-borough students cruising on public transit gets.
But the fact that the French expat has toned down the outré DIY flights of fancy in favor of something ostensibly more grounded doesn’t auto-guarantee deeper insight. His nonprofessional cast can certainly act like real teens for the camera—talking/texting trash, being faux-aggressive or awkwardly attempting aloofness—but there’s the constant sense that Gondry views these kids the same way he thinks of his props: just movable figures to be idiosyncratically manipulated. By the end of the ride, the movie’s messy humanity has officially calcified into After-School Special clichés; given the choice between handcrafted whimsy and heavy-handedness, we’ll take the former, thanks.
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