REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

Me and Earl Thomas Mann

Greg is apt to tell us, through consistent narration, that his experiences are not a movie by explaining what would happen if it were.  Yet, in spite of these claims, he relies on cinema to make sense of the world. Every so often, he imagines a character or object, and then it appears on screen for us. This figment of Greg’s mind does not occupy some separate fantasy space; it integrates itself into the same setting in which he resides.

Most of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” consists of Greg processing a tumultuous year by re-envisioning it as a film, compartmentalizing it by labeling distinct segments “The Part Where…”.  With his “business partner” Earl (RJ Cyler), he already has plenty of experience turning classics and Criterion Collection titles into amusingly awful short parodies.  But, as Greg quickly finds out, sincerity and authenticity are tough qualities to achieve.  As “Annie Hall” so brilliantly states it, “You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.”

Indeed, how can any film really capture the pain of illness and mortality?  The paralysis of youthful indecision?  The crippling fear of candidly opening yourself up to someone and being completely vulnerable?  Greg, in the grand scheme of his personal movie where he is protagonist but not hero, successfully grasps the enormity of the issues he has to face.

Ideally, the internal train of thought running through Greg’s head would merge seamlessly with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s movie, which is mostly concerned with capturing his mentality.  They do not coexist in perfect harmony, however, because “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not as thoroughly realized as Greg.

Gomez-Rejon mixes stylistic techniques from “American Horror Story” with a quirky Sundance aesthetic, and the often suffocates with its bludgeoning use of off-kilter angles and framing patterns to suggest something off in the lives of the characters.  Like plenty of other movies, it turns its rare black character into a token one-note stereotype; Earl cannot seem to get through a scene without referencing “dem titties.”

In other words, if anyone wants to use “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” to help them grapple with the world around them, they have virtually no choice but to go through Greg.  And even then, truly understanding him takes getting down in the mud and really wrestling with what his perspective means.  It’s messy and complicated but worthwhile, just like life – and not necessarily like any pre-made, festival-ready template.  B+ / 3stars

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18 07 2015
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