Chinese expat filmmaker Nanfu Wang came to America sometime after stirring up trouble with her documentary “Hooligan Sparrow,” in which she followed an activist trying to get justice for six girls abused by their school principal in a totalitarian state where such things officially do not happen.
So the idea of “freedom” to her is intriguing, intoxicating and malleable. Upon coming here, she stumbles across a handsome young “homeless by choice” blond and decides to follow him on his travels, sampling his lifestyle.
Dylan Olsen is just like anybody else, he insists. “I Am Another You” is a line from a poem he’d written based on what he thinks is a Mayan form of greeting. Wang had the subject of her next movie, a documentary with an open-minded approach to freedom and homelessness, and Olsen, a fresh-faced ex-Mormon of about 20, had given her its title.
“Getting lost is where I’m found,” he preaches, and she wants to taste that.
She shows Dylan how to use her gear so that she can be a part of this personal essay. But as they wander coastal Florida, sleeping in parks, eating from trash cans, charming people on the street, restaurant patrons and bagel bakery employee, conning vacation time share operators (who will pay you to sit through a presentation), “I Am Another You” changes subjects, even though Wang is slow to figure that out.
It is only later that she notices that this extremely affable young man, always cadging smokes, is also always having a drink — beer, wine, whisky, vodka.
She conducts little tests, experiments to see how Dylan charms his way through life without work or purpose beyond “eating, happiness and community,” she hides with her camera and sees him work his magic on strangers without her camera egging them on. People offer him/them rides, meals, take them home to put a roof over their head for the night.
But Wang, and most reviews of “I Am Another You,” miss the obvious — the reason for Olsen’s dazzling “success” at homelessness. Track back to that second paragraph above, “handsome young ‘homeless by choice’ blond.” Strangers are drawn to Dylan for the same reason she was — he’s beautiful, with the teeth and articulation that suggest he had a solid childhood, some education and proper health care. He is a walking advertisement for free-spirit, hoboing as a lark. And in North America, if you’re blond and pretty, the world, even the homeless one, is your oyster.
You don’t even have to be blond. Google “hot homeless guy” and revisit that meme of a few years back.
“I Am Another You” seeks answers, years later, from Dylan’s family, and through his parents and siblings, we and Wang pick up on the substance abuse, the mental illness that his parents might not have been aware of when they indulged his need to “see where the road takes me” impulses.
“I Am Another You,” now streaming on Amazon, is never judgmental, although Dylan gets a tiny taste of that from one (among many) religious stranger. And that’s about his lifestyle. The film never judges him for his drinking, his mooching or his illness and accepts his diagnosis and acceptance of another reality at face value.
Part of the entertainment value here is smirking at the naivete of the filmmaker. Wang confesses to being emboldened by her “sampling” of homelessness, the liberating notion that there are survival skills (sneaking into locked parks to sleep, figuring out which bathrooms will give you time to get wholly cleaned up) which, once acquired, reassure you that you can always survive.
But seriously, don’t try this at home unless home is Florida, Southern California or Hawaii. And don’t even think of it if you don’t have the good looks and confidence that comes with pretty white boy privilege. Because the wrong hair, the wrong skin and bad teeth wipe away the charm and let the desperation show.
MPAA Rating: unrated, alcohol abuse, mental illness, smoking
Cast: Dylan Olsen, Nanfu Wang
Credits: Written, directed and narrated by Nanfu Wang. A FilmRise release.
Running time: 1:20