“Me Without You” starts out like a sentimental, sappy chick flick with a tie-dyed shirt thrown over it. Opening in the groovy, free spirited early seventies, we view chummy childhood chicks Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams) as they jump rope, hula-hoop, and roller skate in an idealized, soft-focus haze. It’s also the swinging U.K., baby, with both girls prancing around in fluorescent, oversized sweaters and feather-covered stripper scarves. Can you say shagadelic?
Marina is destined to be a wild child. Her bohemian mother (Trudie Styler, wife of recording artist Sting) pushes the philosophy that looks matter most. Holly’s more conservative parents stress that “some people are pretty people, and some are clever people,” insisting that their deep-thinking daughter fits the latter category. With each girl subscribing to such a contrasting values system, is there any hope that the friendship will survive?
“Me Without You” follows both girls into the new millenium, as they cross the bridges of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll on their way to full-fledged womanhood. Sex arrives in the form of Marina’s older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn), an Adam Ant lookalike whom Holly secretly loves, and a sleazy, hedonistic college professor (Kyle McLaughlan) who lusts after both buddies with disastrous consequences.
The drugs come in the form of pot, coke, and heroin, all of which are gobbled or shot up by the impulsive Marina, while shunned by shy, reluctant Holly.
The rock ‘n roll is a smorgasbord of British new wave and pop, from The Clash to Depeche Mode to Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s clear that director Sandra Goldbacher (“The Governess”) holds such alternative English music close to her heart, using it to emphasize the passing of different eras while her two protagonists endure both bonding and betrayals.
The acting is sensational. Williams, an American actress from the “Dawson’s Creek” television series, sports a convincing British accent and morphs from tentative wallflower to worldly, intellectual beauty. Resembling a more volatile, energetic Marissa Tomei, Friel is equally good, embodying a character who is all charisma and fireworks on the surface, but needy, shallow, and frightened beneath that thin outer layer of confident-looking bravado. There’s a scene in “Me Without You” where Marina, struggling to find a human anchor after nearly losing her mother to an overdose of pills, attempts to seduce Holly’s proper Jewish dad (Allan Corduner). Her desperate gestures, and his knowing, gentle refusal, are pure perfection, sad and true when the scene could have been exploitative and phony.
There are less convincing elements that rear their tarnished heads as well. The girls’ polar opposite families get along remarkably well. Too well, perhaps, considering their diametrically opposite views on life, the world, and everything. Would Holly’s decent, pillar-of-the-community dad really let his hair down and start boogying with Marina’s boozy mom during a neighborhood get-together?
Ultimately, “Me Without You” is a sum greater than its parts. The viewer is taken on a journey spanning nearly three decades of bittersweet camaraderie and history, in which we feel that we truly know what makes Holly and Marina tick, and our hearts go out to them as both continue to negotiate their imperfect, love-hate relationship. Suddenly, all the slow motion and soft focus that they’re bathed in comes across not as manipulative, but earned.