In I Am Another You, documentarian Nanfu Wang blurs the lines between friend, subject, and director after meeting enigmatic drifter Dylan Olsen at a Miami hostel and deciding to join him in his perpetual quest for liberation. For several weeks she immerses herself in life on the streets, documenting Olsen and his interactions with strangers, before a disagreement forces them apart. Wang returns to China for another project, only to be drawn back to Olsen’s story months later.
At first glance, Olsen seems like the consummate free spirit. In his early twenties when he and Wang first meet, Olsen possesses the youthful good looks of Zac Efron and the mellow drawl of James Franco. He is prone to uttering phrases such as, “The world is my home,” and, “Being lost is where I’m found,” between taking drags on cheap cigarettes, and prefers to keep his shoes tied to his backpack than on his feet. Olsen’s very being has a magnetic pull, as evidenced later by complete strangers’ desire to want to help him, and Wang is particularly intrigued by the vast differences between their backgrounds; he who left his family behind in Utah to traverse the country, she who hails from a small village in China bound by rigid social expectations.
Wang confesses her insatiable hunger to see more of the world; how, in China, her birthday present to herself was to buy a train or bus ticket to a place she’d never been before. The Miami jaunt was no different—feeling restless in her new home base in New York, she booked a one-way ticket down to Florida. In that respect, driven by wanderlust and curiosity, Wang and Olsen are eerily similar.
In the course of their travels through the urban centers of Florida, Olsen proves an uncanny ability to charm others, scoring free rides, the occasional place to spend the night, and even money. On the one hand this generosity proves that hope for humanity is not totally lost, on the other it hints at the protagonist’s potential to be a great con artist. Indeed, only when Wang distances herself from her friend and reviews the footage on her own is she able to recognize telltale signs of Olsen’s murky history.
Despite being a modern-day street urchin, it’s difficult to watch Olsen on the streets without seeing an embodiment of white boy privilege. He chose to live like this, despite growing up in a loving household. He is educated, at one point telling Wang he completed high school and dropped out of college. And he attracts the charity of strangers in a way that young, homeless black men surely wouldn’t.
In the course of finishing and promoting her debut documentary feature, Hooligan Sparrow (2016), which she took on after the homeless stint with Olsen, Wang finds herself in Utah and decides to pick up the trail that her friend left behind. She gets in touch with Olsen’s father, a prominent detective with local law enforcement, who reveals the crucial backstory that casts everything that she knows about Dylan in a new light.
Olsen resurfaces as well, only this time appearing more haggard, that youthful glow from earlier times extinguished. Though ultimately a sympathetic figure, Olsen’s big reveal forces Wang and her viewers to confront their perceptions of freedom and social stigma. Recognized at SXSW for Excellence in Documentary Storytelling, I Am Another You is an exquisite, intimate portrait of how the human experience transcends all boundaries, be they cultural, social, political or otherwise.