Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

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Greg Gaines is a budding cinephile who wants to get through high school noticed as little as possible.  But his existence is thrown into sharp focus when his mother forces him to become the sole companion to Rachel, diagnosed with leukemia.  Will his friendship keep Rachel connected to the world, or is it Greg who needs to be coaxed into connections?  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs from a screenplay written by Jesse Andrews and stars Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and Ronald Cyler II. 

Here's the trioThere's a long tradition of the independent coming-of-age story stretching back to Harold and Maude of the young man who learns some life lesson by dealing with death and disease.  It's rarely afflicted on the hero, of course, because diseases are inherently unsexy storytelling devices and if the hero dies what's the point of the story?  Rare is the movie which uses these fatal diseases and has anything to say about them.  For every magnificent film like Wit we get a Still Alice, The Theory of Everything, and now Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Not every film with disease has to get suffocatingly close, as is the case with art house favorites like Cries and Whispers, but the stylistic distance employed by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's film is a step too far removed from the cancer the titular dying girl has.  The framing is an excuse to indulge in as many different cinematic techniques as possible since the "me" of the film, Greg (Thomas Mann), and Earl (Ronald Cyler II) are obsessed with classic film.  In a weird bit of product placement, or potential criticism of Greg but we'll get to that, their idea of classic film seems to stem entirely from the Criterion Collection.  I'm a devout fan, but where's the Facets Video or selections from Turner Classic Movies?

The presence of Criterion signals that this will be a love letter to a very specific kind of cineaste, one who is aware of some of the classics but lacks to rigor to venture out into truly uncharted territory.  Keeping this in mind, the stylistic flourishes of Me and Earl are relatively safe.  We get some bravado one-shot sequences early in the movie where Greg argues with his mother (Connie Britton) while on the phone with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), then other moments where Greg creates Errol Morris' Interrotron while making a documentary about Rachel and her illness, or bits of Wes Anderson popping up with soundtrack queues here and there.  Clearly, Gomez-Rejon knows his stuff and can replicate styles just fine, but if he's a true fan of cinematic history he would know that Ingmar Bergman once lamented how kids in film school had the tools to better create stylized shots but little of the experience to know how to use them.

In case you're unfamiliar with the visual references, Me and Earl provides a handy side-by-side comparison to the jokingly spelled version the shots come from.

In case you're unfamiliar with the visual references, Me and Earl provides a handy side-by-side comparison to the jokingly spelled version the shots come from.

This is my exact problem with Me and Earl, and where I wonder what the purpose of all the cinematic references are for.  If Me and Earl is an implicit criticism of the tendency of film makers to use old styles and current diseases to make a drama, then we have to consider the way Jesse Andrews' screenplay ends up treating the selfish Greg.  The worse conclusion is that Gomez-Rejon creates a demo reel to show off with Me and Earl, giving prospective employers a taste of the differing styles he can work in.  The latter conclusion ends up discounting the work of the cinematographer too much, so I fear we must go with the former and figure out just what the style and writing of Me and Earl is trying to pull off.

To make sure we're clear on where Greg and I stand, he's a jerk.  He starts Me and Earl a jerk, and ends mostly the same way.  What little good he's able to accomplish in his life is because he's been forced to by his mother, teacher (a great and underused Jon Bernthal), Earl, and the girl he has a crush on (Katherine C. Hughes).  This isn't the story of a reluctant hero, it's the story of a boy who doesn't want to be bothered and is trying to take the path of least resistance throughout life.  Again, male wall flowers are something of a trope in this era of post-Sundance independent cinema, so Andrews' screenplay better pony up some kind of strong self-realizations to make up for eighty minutes worth of Greg and his whining.

Rachel's life exists as a story for Greg to mold as he wishes for the camera.

Rachel's life exists as a story for Greg to mold as he wishes for the camera.

But that doesn't happen.  In fact, Me and Earl closes with roughly the same kind of style as it opens, that being whatever camera techniques Gomez-Rejon is feeling up to using at that particular moment.  Greg gets what he wants at the cost of a young girl's death, and is supported by a black character who should be a cliché all screenwriters should be avoiding by now but still use.  All we have to do is switch on our televisions to almost any drama or sitcom and see someone like Greg, propped up by a system which supplies success over the bodies of women and black men.  Is this a bit harsh for a tragicomic bit of fluff like Me and Earl?  No, because it's old hat and the fact that the cliché's persist show that the conditions which keep those tropes alive are still very much present in our society.

The only conclusion we can pull from Me and Earl is that life will somehow work out for those (white) people who already are ahead of the pack.  This could have been turned into criticism of Greg, but instead is used for a painfully slow montage where he realizes the vibrant artistic spirit within Rachel much too late, complete with sappy indie song and long sad looks.  Me and Earl ultimately stands for nothing but the continued success of Greg, whose opinion of himself is the most accurate in the movie.  This is a shame because it's packed to the brim with excellent talent poorly used, especially in the case of Nick Offerman who works as a foreign food obsessed voice over actor spending the entire film clad in a robe.

But he's there, offers more quips and weird food, then disappears into the background like everyone else.  Offerman's presence reminds me of a much stronger film, The Kings of Summer, which opened and ended on an aggressive note that growing up is not easy even with little pleasures to make things simple.  But little pleasures, and successes built on the lives of others, are all Me and Earl has to offer.  It's a sad reminder that if you haven't lived the life of your cinematic forebears, copying their style won't hide the shallowness of your story.

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Tail - Me and Earl and the Dying GirlMe and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Screenplay written by Jesse Andrews.
Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and Ronald Cyler II.

Posted by Andrew

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