On Screen

The Friendship Trap

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 13, 2002

IT ISN'T just any actress who can age 23 years convincingly ¿ and move you at every step of the way.

Meryl Streep? Sure, with an arm tied behind her back. But how about Michelle Williams? (Yes, I'm talking about that kid from "Dawson's Creek" and the throwaway comedy "Dick.") In "Me Without You," a decades-spanning drama about growing up while growing out of a suffocating friendship, Williams does just that, playing a British woman who blossoms in slo-mo, starting out as a mousy teenager in the punk-steeped 1970s and only arriving at adult independence in the new millennium, all the while turning in a performance that is seamless, canny and artistically mature.

Not bad for a girl from small-town Montana who just turned 22.

As directed and co-written by Sandra Goldbacher ("The Governess"), who has called the film semi-autobiographical, "Me Without You" is the story of Holly (Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel), childhood friends so close they refer to themselves as "Harina," a hybrid name whose asymmetry mirrors the imbalance in their relationship. "Some people are pretty people," says Holly's mother, "and some people are clever people."

Fleshy and bookish, Holly is clearly in the thrall of Marina, the popular, thin and streetwise party girl. Oh, Marina may envy Holly's Jewishness, finding it exotic when compared with her blandly gentile absence of religion, but otherwise Marina is the gravitational force here, setting the agenda, issuing orders, stealing boyfriends ¿ notably Kyle MacLachlan as a sleazy college professor ¿ and undertaking other casual betrayals so numerous they leave Holly numb.

For a while. It's a long time coming, but when Holly finally has her epiphany and angrily tells Marina off, in a scene that will be painfully familiar to anyone who's had to cut a destructive friend loose, we are so into Holly's character that she feels like an extension of ourselves.

With on-screen chapter titles and era-defining musical selections ranging from Wreckless Eric to the Cowboy Junkies, "Me Without You" feels like a late-baby-boomer family album. The memories are fond and embarrassing.

In addition to the obvious allusion to Holly and Marina's gradual separation, there are a couple of additional meanings to the film's title. On a second, perhaps superficial, level, it can be read as referring to Holly's longing for Marina's older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn), a mostly unrequited love that forms a kind of spine for the film's plot. On yet a third level, "Me Without You" suggests not merely Holly's journey toward becoming her own person but Marina's definitive emptiness.

"There's no me without you," whines Marina during the big "divorce" scene with Holly. It's a telling comment from someone who feels she doesn't exist without Holly to tell her so. And it's a measure, ironically, of Holly's wholeness. In the end, it's Holly, not Marina, who has real, solid presence, after a lifetime of living in the orbit of another.

ME WITHOUT YOU (R, 107 minutes) ¿ Contains obscenity, drug use, sexuality and partial nudity. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company