Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Review

Posted: December 11, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

People often talk about the major Hollywood trends their sick of. Superhero movies, young adult adaptations, remakes, and gritty fairy tale “reimaginings” are among the most recent batch of genres that man (including myself) have criticized. The thing is, it isn’t just Hollywood that relies on existing trends. As much as we wanna think about independent cinema as a place for unique and creative expression, the fact is there are still formulas many of the filmmakers follow. For my money, the most frustrating of these indie trends is movies about pretentious young white people coming of age. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it essentially boils down to the fact that these films typically lean on a lot of annoying quirks, and that the stories are not nearly as interesting as the writer and/or director thinks. From the trailer, it would seem Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be exactly that, which played a big role in why I didn’t see this in theaters. However the reviews were quite strong, the film won some festival awards, and overall it just seemed like a talked about it enough film that I should at least check it out at home.

The film revolves around high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann), a socially awkward and self-loathing teen just trying to make it through his final year. His only real friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), who shares his interest for art house and classic cinema. One day, Greg’s parents inform him that Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a loose acquaintance of his from school, has just been diagnosed with leukemia and that Greg should visit her. Given that Greg barely knows her, he argues that such a meeting would be awkward and even condescending. But Greg’s mother persists and eventually he goes. Though their first meeting is steeped in awkwardness, the two do eventually form a very close friendship. Rachel eventually learns that part of Greg and Earl’s friendship is based on doing cheap rip-offs of classic movies they love, like one called “A Sockwork Orange”, made with sock puppets. This inspires someone to suggest that Greg and Earl make a movie for Rachel, something complicated by Greg’s pessimistic attitude and Rachel’s worsening condition.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that’s trying to be way too hip for its own good. From the very beginning, the film just starts throwing quirky style at the viewer. Random claymation sections, self-aware titles and voiceover, fourth wall breaking, semi-obscure references, basically all the major tropes that can make these films so annoying when they’re abused. I’m not saying these things are inherently bad, but when they’re not used to serve the story, they become annoying, and that’s certainly the case here. This definitely feels like a film inspired by Wes Anderson, along with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Juno. The thing is, what those filmmakers are good at (particularly Anderson) is using these quirky moments as a way of telling funny and poignant stories. With Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the quirk overpowers everything else and it doesn’t feel sincere. It’s no coincidence the two best scenes in the film are ones were the style largely cools off, the camera locks down, and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon simply allows Greg and Rachel to share a moment.

The style here never worked for me, but in truth, I’m sure I could have looked past that had the actual story been compelling, but that isn’t the case. Greg strikes me as the pretty typical pretentious youth that usually leads these stories, and his arc of self-realization is nothing special. Bottom line, the dude basically learns to not be so self-loathing and put himself out there a little more. You would think the dude’s love for art cinema would have endeared him to me, but not so, perhaps even the opposite. Put bluntly, I don’t really buy Greg’s passion for film. Don’t get me wrong, there are scenes of Greg and Earl watching classic movies, they do make a lot of their own films, there is tons of movie iconography, and even the soundtrack utilizes a lot of classic movie scores. And yet, all this detail struck me as superficial, just another detail to make Greg that much more “different” and “special” from others.

The thing is, there is a potentially interesting story here, but it’s not Greg’s; it’s Rachel’s. What is it like to be a normal teenage girl that suddenly has to contend with having cancer?* How would that change your world view? How would it change you from day to day? These are questions the movie does ponder briefly, but the focus is clearly and constantly on Greg and his arc. Essentially, Rachel’s role in the film is simply a device to allow Greg to improve himself as a person, and that’s borderline offensive. To paraphrase Earl, “this girl has cancer, don’t make this about you,” which is exactly what the film does. To put that in perspective, it be like if Seth Rogen’s character was the lead in 50/50, and the movie was about how his buddy’s struggle with cancer inspired Rogen to live a fuller life. Similarly, Earl’s role in the film, despite having some funny dialogue, is largely relegated to helping Greg understand things. The film has very little interest in either Rachel or Earl as people. It’s a shame too because RJ Cyler is really funny as Earl, and Olivia Cooke is genuinely moving as Rachel. Instead, the film tells the story of yet another middle-class white kid finding himself.

This review definitely reads like I hate this movie, but that isn’t quite true. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does embody many elements I hate, but there is talent here. As I said, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke both give really good performances (Cooke in particular), and Thomas Mann is pretty solid as Greg too. I also do think Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has potential as a director, at least as a craftsman. The style here is flawed, but the film is definitely well-shot and committed to a vision. Finally, there are some effective moments in here. But all told, this still strikes me as another self-indulgent coming of age indie film and it uses quirks to an insufferable degree. I can get why others have responded to it, but most of the decisions in this rubbed me wrong.

D+

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