*** (3 stars)
d – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
w – Jesse Andrews (Based on the Novel by Jesse Andrews)
ph – Chung-hoon Chung
pd – Gerald Sullivan
m – Brian Eno, Nico Muhly
ed – David Trachtenberg
cos – Jennifer Eve
p – Dan Fogelman, Jeremy Dawson, Steven M. Rales
Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes
It is apparently very difficult to deal with a movie that indulges in its characters’ fallibilities. Was it always this way? Negative. But it seems nowadays that movies – including everything from Zero Dark Thirty (2012) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) to The Wind Rises (2013) to American Sniper (2014) – are required to answer for things they shouldn’t have to answer for; fulfill desires that they shouldn’t be forced to fulfill. Every time a filmmaker is in any way overt regarding its characters’ perspectives, weird and grotesque discussions occur about the future of social civilization and political progression and other things that have nothing to do with the movie itself, or movies, or the future of the cinema.
This disturbs me for two major reasons (among others): 1) It is not fair to artists and 2) It signifies that people find discussing cinema to be a boring affair, or at least an unproductive one.
Many have written off Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the expected winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as another gooey or even toxic dose of elitist sentimentality where a random assemblage of screenwriting devices – some of whom are black, some of whom are female and some of whom have cancer – teach a gratuitously depressed young white male how to feel things. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon luxuriates in meta-movie high jinks that continuously underline: Sarcastic voice-over narration; absurdist chyrons that explain nothing; abrupt, artificial camera movements; unbroken takes that draw attention to their length; and an onslaught of movie references.
The “me” in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a Pittsburgh teenager named Greg, a gangly, sardonic young man that has mastered (he feels) the art of high school congeniality, refusing to be a member of any recognizable social grouping. He has a special fondness for cinema, particularly the Criterion Collection. Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler), his best friend or “Co-Worker”, spend their spare time essentially re-creating classic films on video, using stop-motion animation and silly costumes and giving the results jokey, double entendre titles, such as “The 400 Bros”, “Eyes Wide Butt” and “A Sockwork Orange.”
I will admit that some of these introductory proceedings irked me, only in the sense that a congregation of quirks is not appetizing to anybody, especially quirks as improbable as this. But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own young-adult novel, then goes on to reveal how genuine its sensibilities are and how witty and sensitive its presentation is. Even when it feels like a calculation, it’s irresistible.
Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is a not friend to either boy. She has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) pushes him into spending some time with her. The three grow very close with one another and Greg and Earl soon endeavor to make a film for Rachel and her circumstance. A real film this time.
The cast here is all uniformly excellent. The 4 adults – Nick Offerman plays the other half of Greg’s two begetters, Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s alcoholic mother and Jon Bernthal plays Greg and Earl’s favourite teacher – all serve the film with gravitas despite their nominal input. But it’s the three title performers that give the film its delicacy and candidness, pulling off difficult roles with formidable ease, Mr Cyler especially who is, shockingly, performing here in his first film.
The irresistibility comes from how enticing and moving the escapades and details are: Greg’s advice on how to ignore pity; the various meals concocted by Greg’s dad; a hilarious sequence involving some pho soup; and the aforementioned long single take, which comes at a crucial point in the film, both narratively and rhythmically. Words are said and aren’t said and despite its photographic obviousness, Mr Gomez-Rejon, in slowing the film down at that point, is able to cover so much emotional ground. It is pronounced but not trite. Instead of serving as maudlin allegories, the antics of the characters are all handled with an agile breeziness, unlike lesser “dying girl” films such as The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and If I Stay (2014).
And again, the reason I find fault in those who want to find socially regressive temperaments in what on paper look like nothing but “devices” such as the black-skinned Earl, who is fond of the expression “Dem-Titties” and Rachel, who complains that her hair loss makes her look ugly despite still looking like Olivia Cooke, is that it is all from the perspective of this young male idiot. This I do not find improbable. There are plenty of male teenage idiots who fancy themselves deep and yet merely see the world as a stage in which they are the star. I was like that. Everything is from the perspective of “Me”, which explains its admittedly horrible title, which is of course grammatically incorrect.
Greg’s mindset is a kind of arrogance that is not too commonly portrayed on film and although not everything gels (especially when the movie – literally! – promises a conclusion that it ends up not delivering), for Mr Gomez-Rejon to undertake the portrait of such matters in our post-modern, all too knowing metacognitive culture is risky and kind of brave.
My earlier enquiries about our current culture boil down to this: When did people stop finding this kind of thing fun? If Rushmore (1998) were released today it would be instantly labeled as “twee” or “manipulative.” Many have compared Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to the films of Wes Anderson, but the film it reminded me the most of was Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011). Both are about young people realizing that the world is full of deep and dangerous others, and none of them should be considered merely the supporting cast in the movie that is your life.