Jonathan Romney on Me and You: This boy in the basement keeps us all in the dark

Bertolucci's none-too-subtle study of youthful alienation is a film for auteurists – but claustrophobics beware

It often comes as a shock to remember that some of cinema's most revered elders were once young firebrands. Bernardo Bertolucci was only 21 when he directed his first feature The Grim Reaper and 23 when he followed it up with Before the Revolution, one of the best films about the torments of youth. Today, aged 73, the maestro returns to that same subject, in a modest and intimate film – essentially a two-hander set in a cramped basement.

In the Seventies and Eighties, in epics such as The Last Emperor, Bertolucci worked on a monumental scale. But recently he's been using a small canvas and musing on themes of enclosure. Besieged, The Dreamers and now Me and You are about people in tight spaces, living on top of each other, interacting in pressure-cooker conditions.

Me and You is again about youth, but it rather comes across as a film-maker of a certain age setting out to make a film about The Young People of Today and the Problems They Face. In fact, some of the dilemmas afflicting Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) aren't especially new – Holden Caulfield would understand exactly what's eating him. The sullen, withdrawn teenager lives with his divorced mother and is taciturnly undergoing therapy sessions. Dining out with Mamma in an elegant restaurant, the boy taunts her with hints of incestuous fantasy. Isolated at school, he straps on his headphones and mooches alone to Muse. Well, maybe it's just a phase.

Instead of going on a school trip, Lorenzo hides out in his flat's basement storage room, digging himself in for a long, solitary sulk. Then in storms an unwelcome guest – his older half-sister Olivia, barking into her mobile and wearing a huge furry coat, as if she's just come straight from modelling grunge glam at Milan Fashion Week. She has a drug problem, and soon goes into one of the more decorous cold-turkey ordeals on film (certainly by Trainspotting standards) as she shivers in her black undies on a squalid toilet floor, then huddles up cosily on the sofa.

Co-scripted by Niccolo Ammaniti from his own novel, Me and You depends on the two young stars working together on a restricted stage – which just about comes off, even if they never quite catch fire. The spud-faced Antinori is an unusual, abrasive presence; he looks like a junior version of Michael Shannon (currently American cinema's most reliably unnerving physiognomy), and Bertolucci makes good use of what seems the actor's own teenage oscillation between diffidence and restlessness.

Tea Falco is more distractingly a star turn. Her character, uncomfortably larger than life, is a tormented beauty and precocious feted video artist now venting her angst through a series of photographic self-portraits called I Am a Wall ("Visually I wanted to dematerialise"). Falco swans around imposingly and has an extraordinary, petulantly slurred voice, but she's so obviously a Find that she overpowers the film. Her Olivia would surely have Lorenzo cowering behind the sofa.

The cellar, which tells its own story, is full of the clutter left by a previous aristocratic tenant. Among the junk is a famous modernist bust of Mussolini – in other words, Italy is still haunted by its repressed but ever-present past.

This is one of the subtler touches of a sometimes heavy-handed film. When the young duo launch a raid on Lorenzo's flat, they find his mother asleep in front of the TV – ah, the narcotised bourgeoisie! Some false notes suggest that Bertolucci has asked an assistant to research what young people are into these days – the really alienated, moody ones – and received stale information. (Ammaniti's novel was published in 2010 but is set in 2000.) Lorenzo favours the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Cure – not just any Cure, mind you, but "Boys Don't Cry". He also reads Interview with the Vampire, which, to be fair, is what you might immerse yourself in if you were 14 and had sworn off daylight for a week.

For further underlining, Bertolucci uses a song called "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl"), which is the 1969 Italian version of "Space Oddity". There's a nice jolt of unfamiliarity in hearing the young Bowie doing a Euro-cabaret version of this then-fresh chestnut, so we hardly need the original as well, accompanying a closing nod to Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

For all its flaws, this is clearly a personal film that may click with Bertolucci's auteurist fans, echoing as it does the incest drama of La Luna (1979) and Before the Revolution, about a young man obsessed with his glamorous aunt. But even with fabled auteurs, being consistent with yourself isn't always enough. After 103 minutes in the dark with Bertolucci's young neurotics, you may be glad to see the daylight.

Critic's Choice

Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper take a surprising left turn or two in Derek Cianfrance's unpredictable US thriller The Place Beyond the Pines. London's 2nd Argentine Film Festival ends today with the Fellini-esque Sadourni's Butterflies: passion, porn, circuses and Surrealism, at the Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton.

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