Friendship strikes a balance

October 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

***

Some of the material in the small British film Me Without You was explored more cuttingly in the French film Mina Tannenbaum, but it has its own share of insights and acting coups. You won't want to miss it if you care about movies that dare to chart intimacies in our age of spectacle, or about up-and-coming female performers and underused male veterans finding roles worthy of their gifts.

As she jumps in time from the late '70s to the present day, director Sandra Goldbacher (who co-wrote the script with Laurence Coriat) takes emotional tissue samples of two girl neighbors in a London suburb who share a symbiotic friendship formed as much by need as by affection. It's a recipe for trouble as they grow into teens and young adults. Holly (Michelle Williams) is a Jewish bookworm and the only child of a tight-knit, cultured bourgeois family, while Marina (Anna Friel) is a party gal with a cute brother and an ex-croupier mother who can never quite let go of her straying husband.

You cotton on immediately to what the girls see in each other. Holly, beset by a mother who sees her as a dull and dutiful girl, both admires and fears Marina's daredevil raciness, and gets a kick out of her mom's earthiness and seedy glamour. Marina envies Holly's substance and the solidity of her family life: In one particularly audacious moment, she tries to seduce Holly's dad. What makes the movie special is its blend of extremism and common sense. The girls push each other to the edge and then reach a tenuous balance without coming to emotional understandings about everything.

Goldbacher has a zest for the messiness of close bonds among family and friends, and a keen grasp of how each girl sets egotistical boundaries. Before and during college, Marina can't stand the idea of Holly achieving sensual bliss (that's supposed to be her turf) - she does whatever she can to keep Holly and her own good-guy brother separated. Holly, for her part, presumes that an American academic (Kyle MacLachlan) working as a visiting prof at their Brighton campus is naturally her romantic property.

MacLachlan is deadly funny in the role of a clueless man suddenly blandished with erotic treasures. His performance is never more sharply awkward than when this obtuse teacher attempts to tell Holly how interesting he finds her Jewishness; his comments would send Jewish women less desperate than Holly running for the exit. (The movie's handling of Holly's Judaism is refreshingly complex: She takes it for granted as part of her family's fabric but goes quietly nuts at the news that Marina will convert.)

Friel succeeds in making Marina a frenzied, poignant hedonist; you hope she will grow out of her Holly-envy and into herself. And Williams doesn't play Holly as a simple shrinking flower: It's as if she's biding her time for the right moment to bloom. Together, the two girls, then women conjure an illusion of a friendship for life - a better or worse situation that is better for us, comically and dramatically, the worse it is for them.

Me Without You

Starring Michelle Williams, Anna Friel and Kyle Maclachlan

Directed by Sandra Goldbacher

Released by IDP

Rated R

Time 107 minutes

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