Bleaker than its nostalgic premise (and soundtrack) would suggest, Me Without You (Samuel Goldwyn/Fireworks, in general release) observes a close friendship over the course of nearly three decades; by “friendship,” director Sandra Goldbacher means a state of ruinous symbiosis, sustained by lies, denial, and emotional blackmail. The film’s inseparable duo, first seen in 1973 as pre-teen neighbors in suburban London, are defined in convenient opposition. Holly comes from an upper-middle-class Jewish family—loving dad and controlling mum—while Marina’s folks, a pilot and a former croupier, are not only separated but fashionably dissolute. Puberty coincides advantageously with punk, though while Marina (Anna Friel) is busy modeling herself on Siouxsie Sioux, Holly (Michelle Williams) still has her nose in Sylvia Plath. The movie leapfrogs ahead several more times: college in Brighton at the height of new wave; struggling young adulthood in the colorless late ’80s; a fatuous present-day coda. All their spats concern men: Marina prevents her puppyish older brother, Nat (Oliver Milburn), from getting together with smitten Holly; Marina beds the American critical-theory prof (a bemused Kyle MacLachlan) whom Holly falls hard for; Marina marries the respectable doctor Holly meets at a bar mitzvah.
Essentially humorless, Me Without You manages some pleasing textures all the same: The period design is attentive, the soundtrack eclectic enough if not particularly well integrated (in a grossly idiotic faux pas, news of an OD prompts a few bars of Nick Drake). Both leads, especially Williams, inhabit an emotional range to match the time span, and there’s flavorful support from quicksilver Marianne Denicourt as Nat’s wife, a petulant French actress, and Allan Corduner, conveying quiet, boundless generosity in a few brief scenes as Holly’s father. Goldbacher says she was inspired by a still-unexorcised adolescent friendship, but this extrapolated scenario strains credibility. It’s hard to believe that a relationship like Holly and Marina’s could survive the hothouse emotions of teendom, and its longevity gets more inexplicable as the characterizations turn more crassly reductive: Sympathetic, aggrieved Holly, the director’s stand-in (and the one the boys really like anyway), puts up tirelessly with downright villainous Marina. Me Without You avoids sentimentality not least through its discomfiting clarity of purpose: Insofar as the film scans as autobiography, it qualifies as an act of retaliatory wish-fulfillment.