One of the most striking and enthralling nonfiction films this reviewer has seen in years, “I Am Another You” almost seems designed to prove that great documentaries require large measures of both talent and luck.
Filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up in poor circumstances in rural China and only recently immigrated to the United States. She obviously has talent to spare. Her debut feature, “Hooligan Sparrow,” was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar. In “I Am Another You,” her luck begins with a chance encounter. As she explains in the film’s first minutes, in China one of the few freedoms she had was to travel, so she started a tradition of going to a place she’d never been before every year on her birthday. Living in New York, she decided to go to Florida, and it was in a hostel there that she met a charismatic 22-year-old named Dylan Olsen. As soon as they began talking, it seems, she began filming.
Dylan does chores like chopping wood to pay for his stay, but it’s obvious that he’s just passing through the hostel, where the owner describes him as a “street person.” That is, he’s homeless. Wang is intrigued by this because it seems like Dylan has chosen his way of life for the freedom it affords. He’s bright, articulate, educated (finished high school, dropped out of college) and comes from a middle-class family; his folks and two siblings live in Utah. When he departs the hostel and heads out on the road, Wang follows, filming with his permission.
Though she soon has the novel experience of eating pizza out of a garbage can, the life she observes Dylan leading is not one of outward hardship. He is a very attractive young man, with a wide smile, captivating eyes and blond surfer looks; people naturally gravitate toward him. He seems to strike up conversations at every turn, and strangers offer him food, rides, money, sometimes a place to stay. (One has to wonder if some of the guys who invite him to stay over have more in mind than just drinking beer and telling stories, but the film never suggests anything untoward.)
Dylan admits having been on heroin as a teen, and he now seems relatively balanced and good-humored. The only time we see him uncomfortable is in a conversation with a Christian minister who he thinks is condescending and judgmental. Wang’s fascination with him continues to grow as they journey through Florida, sleeping in parks and eating hand-outs, but eventually disillusion sets in. After Dylan accepts a bag of bagels from the kindly folks in a bagel shop, then throws them away rather than eat them, she finds herself put off by his selfishness and lack of appreciation for the generosity he’s afforded, and parts company with him.
The film’s second act begins two years later. In a startling transition, we are suddenly in a car with a Utah cop who’s looking at the camera and talking about his work habits, which include registering his thoughts by talking to a camera. It’s almost like we’ve landed in another movie until it’s revealed that the man is John Olsen, Dylan’s father.
He seems like a good guy, and at his home he talks to Wang about the difficulties he faced in trying to deal with Dylan’s troubled youth. After the boy broke the prohibition against bringing drugs into the house, he was forced to leave, and John describes how agonized he was putting Dylan on a bus to San Diego with $400. But after a while, he began to get messages and photos showing Dylan working on a yacht, sipping wine at someone’s house in Malibu, and so on: the beginnings of his life as a wayfaring, footloose adventurer with a dreamy smile.
The more Wang learns about Dylan’s early life and observes the family dynamics (Dylan’s younger brother is a religious, straight-arrow musician who doesn’t want his sibling using curse words), however, the less his life seems romantic or care-free—or freely chosen.
When John gets remarried (having been divorced from Dylan’s mom some years before), he invites Wang, who sees Dylan for the first time since their travels a couple of years before. He’s cleaned up, shaved with a nice haircut, and seems to fit in fairly easily with the family gathering, where he’s obviously regarded with warmth and affection by some relatives.
But as she gets to know him further, she sees things she missed before, and things his dad said, as indicating a guy with serious mental problems. When she visits a group of his homeless friends with him, she sees him in the context of people—mostly decades older than Dylan—who are frank about being incapable of living lives with families, homes and jobs.
“I Am Another You” is finally so absorbing because it plays like a lyrical road odyssey that’s also a detective story. The more Wang pursues her subject, the more depth and complexity she finds in it, and we share her sense of discovery. At the end of the road, there are no simple answers. Dylan Olsen may be mentally ill in our society’s view, but he’s also a unique being with a strong sense of his life’s sacredness. His story offers moving testimony to the human personality’s endless mystery.