In the lushly lit opening sequence of Sandra Goldbacher's new film, "Me Without You," two 11-year-old girls, one Jewish, one not, make a pact to be friends forever.
They solemnly scribble a note, "Holly and Marina equals Harina; now we two are one," then stuff it in an empty Charlie perfume bottle and bury it in the garden. The buoyant comedy-drama traces their overly intense, ultimately suffocating best-friendship from 1973 to the present.
It's a loosely autobiographical film for Goldbacher, who says she wanted to explore the kind of "intoxicating, mercurial, almost addictive friendship" common among young girls. "I myself had a furiously intense best friendship from 11 to 17," the 41-year-old Jewish Brit says by telephone from London. "It's haunted me like a specter. I dreamt of Tasha constantly though I hadn't seen her in 20 years. I was hoping the movie might exorcise a few ghosts."
Writing the film took Goldbacher back to the time when she was 11 and enrolled in a school with a Jewish quota. She and Tasha were among the seven Jewish girls permitted per class: "We were called 'Jewesses,'" says Goldbacher, whose 1998 film, "The Governess," starred Minnie Driver as an 1840s Sephardic woman who feels as if the word "Jewess" is emblazoned on her forehead. "We were shuttled off to separate assemblies. We felt rather leprous, which made us want to stick together."
Goldbacher stuck together most with Tasha, "the one person who transformed the world into a thrilling, magical place," she says. "Nothing could beat the giggling, knicker-wetting hysteria of pinching makeup and putting it into other people's handbags, or running shrieking down the street from people we pretended were out to white-slave us, or performing desperately serious voodoo ceremonies in the school toilets with pins through an effigy of the English teacher."
Then the girls discovered the opposite sex, and the friendship turned claustrophobic. "Tasha certainly tried to poison me against boys I might have liked, because they threatened our friendship," the director says. "The Siamese twin-like bond with your best friend is so seductive, it's hard to relinquish. But I knew that if we didn't, we wouldn't be able to bond with other people."
The girls deliberately attended separate universities, though Goldbacher says growing apart "felt as painful as a divorce." As she began writing screenplays in the 1980s, intense female friendships repeatedly emerged in her work. Around 1995, she began writing "Me Without You" with the bookish, introverted Holly as her alter-ego.
Marina (Anna Friel) is as exuberant as Tasha, but the director says the similarity ends there. Unlike her childhood friend, Marina is a disturbed, vampish young woman with a valium-addicted mother and an absent father. She's also a non-Jew who longs to convert to Judaism: "I wanted to show how girls often want to possess their best friends' identity," says Goldbacher, whose late father was an Italian-born Holocaust survivor. "Because Marina comes from a broken home, she envies Holly's closely knit Jewish family."
To play Holly, Goldbacher chose Michelle Williams, an actress best known for portraying troubled, All-American characters such as Jennifer Lindley on the WB's "Dawson's Creek."
"At first I didn't think she'd be the one because of her previous work," Goldbacher says. "I thought, 'Perhaps not.'" Then she met the 21-year-old actress and found her to be "actually quite unlike her 'Dawson's Creek' character. She's quite bookish."
To play the Jewish Holly, Williams also read "Introduction to Judaism" books and attended a Shabbat dinner at Goldbacher's home.
Pop culture history lessons were also on the curriculum, as "Me Without You" traverses the London post-punk and New Romantic periods with the requisite Clash and Adam Ant tunes and the awful fashions Goldbacher wore at university.
The director turns serious when describing the almost voodoo-like effect the film has had on her post-childhood obsession. "I used to dream of Tasha several times a week, but I've stopped now," she says. "It was a form of therapy for me. I've gotten her out of my system."
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