Wednesday, September 23, 2015

This is the part where I review 'Me and Earl and The Dying Girl'

The concerns start with that darn title. 

‘Earl’ shouldn’t be in there, for one. He’s too much of a cipher, just another supporting character among many. Then there’s the dying girl. The film’s relationship - and indeed the characters’ relationships - with the dying girl is problematic and worthy of analysis, but we’ll get back to that. ‘Me’, though? That’s totally accurate. It’s not as catchy - “One ticket to ‘Me’, please!” - but it more succinctly captures the message, themes and perspective of MAEATDG. Whether the film’s unquestionably intimate relationship is a productive or a destructive one? Let's have a chat about that...


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has been received with both the exuberant praise and enthusiastic vitriol that reliably greets quirky indie films that are a hit at Sundance. Perhaps the finest illustration of this came in the form of a pair of well-argued articles from the now distressingly defunct The Dissolve - Scott Tobias’ scathing review, and David Ehrlich’s personal, in-depth defence. While consensus towards the film was ultimately positive, it is nonetheless a film that very much rubbed many the wrong way while easily working its charms on many others.

Yet Me and Earl and the Dying Girl makes a strong first impression. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung have put a welcome amount of imagination into the look of the film. Like Gomez-Rejon’s first film - the lively, lightly-meta horror remake The Town that Dreaded Sundown - MAEATDG can come across as formally shallow, where the dynamism of the camera feels showy as opposed to strongly motivated or consistent. Take, for example, a shot transition achieved by tilting the camera 90 degrees or so and tracking down a road - a neat, unusual visual idea that nonetheless draws a significant amount of attention to itself for little reason other than because it can. Still - there’s little denying the film can be quite visually striking, overblown though it may be on occasion.

The opening chapters of the film (and chapters they are, all prefaced with a variation of the ‘this is the part where…’) also benefit from a smartly removed perspective, reflecting the manufactured arrogance of the protagonist Greg (played by Thomas Mann). The film does not avoid clichés - a decent chunk of the opening act is given over to Greg walking us through the various high school cliques he is required to navigate through, to name but one - but they’re handled with a casually confident approach. And where the film embraces some clichés, it coolly avoids other - that a romance between Greg and Rachel (the ‘dying girl’, played by Olivia Cooke) is studiously dismissed as a possibility from pretty much the outset sets it apart from many other, similarly-themed works.The film manages to sneak in moments of sincerity without overplaying them, too. There’s a totally pointless bit where two characters take drugs accidentally, but we’ll ignore that.

The most noteworthy ‘quirk’ here is the characters’ and the filmmakers’ fondness for cinema history, or at least a select few Criterion Collection titles. Like Be Kind Rewind, there ultimately isn’t a whole lot to the 'sweded' movie remakes created by Greg and Earl (RJ Cyler) - although at least the film makes no effort to suggest they’re anything more than crude, one-note gags. It’s a shame they’re given as much prominence as they are given their shallowness - the first montage would have done the job. But the cinematic references more deeply and sometimes subtly embedded into the film's cinematography and soundtrack are a comparative joy to spot. I could be reading too much into it, but I definitely got the impression the camera angles became distinctly Ozu-like during a conversation about pillows. A clever one-shot scene almost feels like a surreal extension of a brilliant shot from Taxi Driver seen on a television within the room. A number of familiar music cues from classic cinema also nicely complicate the tone of several scenes. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a tendency to visibly and repeatedly highlight its cinephile credentials, but they’re most convincing when informing the very form of the film.

Then the second half happened. This is the part where I changed my mind.

Stylistically, the film seems to jettison almost everything that made it memorable. The tone morphs into something significantly more melodramatic, but the change feels inorganic and unearned. The filmmakers over-rely on their soundtrack - heavy on the ol' Brian Eno - as a crutch to tell us how to feel during emotional scenes and moments, which gives the sense that they’re forcing their way to their resolutions and catharsis rather than achieving them within the established tone and form of the film. There are legitimately - or at least potentially - affecting moments, undermined by the contrived script and the aforementioned brute force soundtrack. The vast majority of the supporting characters become more pronounced as the one-note gags or plot devices they actually are - talented players like Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon given little to do in particular. Jon Bernthal becomes a generically ‘inspiring’ teacher after initially appearing to be a strange satire of the same, while Katherine C. Hughes as a friend of Rachel / love interest of Earl has motivations that seem to change with every scene she appears in. One should note, though, that Even when the filmmaking feels machanised and unimaginative, MEATDG can be moving in spite of itself. The situations are, frankly, too loaded from them not to be,

You will notice I’ve said very little about Earl. Well, Earl could effectively be removed from the film for all the difference he makes, as if he was parachuted in from a different film altogether. This is no fault of Cyler, and instead a script (by Jesse Andrews, adapting from his own novel) that has very few ideas of what to do with the character who, lest we forget, is the only named one in the title. He is reduced to a broad stroke backstory and a few crude observations. He is a cipher.

But it’s the film’s handling of 'the dying girl' where it - arguably, it goes without saying - really stumbles. Rachel is given increasingly less screentime as the film advances, and more and more her suffering feels like a way to advance Greg's plot, not her own. Not quite manic pixie dreamgirl, not quite the consumptive heroine, but definitely strong hints of both. Cooke is a talented actress, regularly communicating Rachel’s state-of-mind through expressions rather than dialogue - particularly useful since the cancer’s progression is heavily illustrated through dialogue-free montages, and the climactic sequence relies on her non-verbal response to the experimental film Greg has made for her. The film, however, struggles to get underneath her skin. Until she dies.

This is the part with the dividing line. This is the part that has likely helped led to the stark range of responses to the film. Because Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about ‘Me’ (‘me’ being Greg). It is a study of egotism, or, if we’re willing to be a bit more sympathetic, one immature teenager’s response to an unfolding tragedy happening to somebody close to them. The film is steadfastly interested in Greg’s perspective, and from that conceited point-of-view it becomes somewhat understandable that his engagement with others is shallow and simplistic. He sees people in broad strokes, and through their connection with him.

The problem is the film struggles to convincingly portray all this. Only the very first scene - one of the few moments in the film featuring explicitly fantastical imagery - effectively communicates the blurry line between reality and Greg’s askew distortion of the same. Yes, there is a certain element of unreliable narrator here: one throwaway shot in a montage is given a startlingly different context when we’re reshown it from Rachel’s perspective a few minutes later. But for the most part it’s something the film struggles to formally or convincingly illustrate. It doesn’t help that in one noteworthy case Greg is less an unreliable narrator and instead a straight-up fucking liar: he assures the audience - twice - in voiceover that Rachel is not going to die, a statement which contradicts both the opening suggestion that she will die, and of course her eventual death. It’s a cheap, meaningless dramatic trick that has very little impact other than stand out as weirdly jarring.

When everything starts wrapping up in a neat little package, it all plays out disappointingly mechanically. The fairly sudden over-sincerity of both the drama and the film’s style don’t quite manage to keep pace with Greg’s more gradual character development, and there’s a few too many contrivances along the way to his eventual great revelation (the ‘premiere’ of his experimental film, which coincides with Rachel’s death, is a well-handled sequence, it should be said, heavily on the emotive music though it may be). When Rachel finally passes away, it’s only then that Greg and we viewers learn something more substantial about her. He learns more about her creative streak, her quirks, her childhood. Again, in a way it fits the film’s overall themes that Greg only learns all this when it’s too late, a reminder that he didn’t pay enough attention because he was, frankly, a selfish git. But the whole sequence left a strangely sour taste in my mouth, especially when it precedes a generally hopeful conclusion.

Rachel manages to basically ‘rescue’ Greg’s future from beyond the grave, by writing a letter to a college admissions board and encouraging Greg to take action and do the same. It’s a hopeful conclusion - while it’s not revealed whether the letters actually did the job and secured Greg his lost college space, we’re left on an unmistakably optimistic note that our protagonist will find his way in personal, academic and artistic life. In execution, however, there’s just something about it that feels like they have glossed over the tragedy. There’s a funeral and some tears, sure, and the posthumous discovery of Rachel’s personality (what a strange phrase to type). But here’s yet another story where it feels like a talented, charming girl exists primarily in relation to a boy, and she has to die to put said boy on the right path. The film, to be fair, acknowledges this cliché. But the real question is whether it manages to transcend and overcome it? This is the part where I’m not so sure.

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