Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I'll be upfront about this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of things that should make me hate it. It's a movie about a broken white male who learns how to fix himself with the help of a magical black man and an equally magical dying girl, two tropes that really irk me. It's also set in high school, and features another trope that bothers me, maybe more than the others; preternaturally witty teenagers. The problems with teenagers and children in pop culture is that the people writing these characters base them on idealized versions of themselves, or people they knew. No actual teenager is as well spoken or assured as most teens we see in movies, because we tend to remember our younger selves as simply smaller versions of our adult selves, and we forget how awkward, emotionally, physically, and verbally, we were at the time. So, this film is made up of a collection of tropes I hate, and yet I somehow came to love the film.

Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular Me) is a closed off teenager entering his senior year of high school. He's survived by working hard to be accepted by every imaginable clique in his school, carefully tuning his personality to be as invisible as possible and making sure he never forms any real attachments or enemies. He even refers to his oldest childhood friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) as simply his coworker, referencing the dozens of handmade film parodies they've made since elementary school. When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, typecast these days as the Dying Girl), a near stranger, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother forces him to spend time with her to cheer her up. Which sets our story in motion, as we follow Greg through his senior year, tracking the growing, rocky friendship he develops with Rachel and the possible dissolution of his friendship with Earl.

All of this is filtered through the ironically detached eye of a geeky film nerd, with references to Werner Herzog (a lot of references, actually), Stan Brakhage, The Archers, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and advertisements for the Criterion Collection hanging in bedrooms and bookstores and teacher's studies. The soundtrack often echoes the musical scores to Hitchcock films and spaghetti westerns, and Greg and Earl's film parodies, as silly as they might be, have their roots in a very refined cinematic palette (example parody titles include 'My Dinner With Andre The Giant,' 'The Turd Man,' and 'Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn.'). This veers dangerously close to being too cutesy for it's own good, and yet I found it charming. Perhaps it's because these two seem to be living the dream life version of my own senior year, if only I'd found anyone else quite so into oddball arthouse films and lowbrow humor. The direction, from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who also helmed the better-than-it-needed-to-be Town That Dreaded Sundown remake), gives this film a more idiosyncratic, accomplished look and feel than most other teen-oriented dramas even attempt these days.

I said earlier the film follows Greg, and I say that pointedly, because we never see anything that is outside of his perspective. This fact seemed to anger most critics, who judged the film primarily as the collection of tropes I listed above. Certainly the film leans heavily into stereotype, particularly with Earl, who lives in a bad neighborhood and is overly stoic. The closest he has to a catchphrase, "dem titties," seems just a step above having him eat fried chicken and watermelon in every scene. Rachel, also, is sometimes reduced to a series of reactions to Greg, as we see her cheered up by his antics or too sick to put up with them at various times. That reduction to caricature extends to the rest of the cast too, with Greg's parents (Nick Offerman & Connie Britton) portrayed as slightly loopy, hippyish academics. Earl's family fares much worse, with only his brother (Bobb'e J. Thompson) appearing on screen, and he's the basic stereotype of a young African American hoodlum, with tank top, do-rag, tattoos, and an always aggressive dog at his side. It continues on to Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon), who is always filmed holding a glass of wine, Greg's history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a heavily tattooed variation of the tough but inspiring high school teacher, and all of the other teen characters seem to be central casting's idea of 'goth' 'cheerleader' or 'jock.' Everyone in this film is a caricature.

Clearly this sort of one dimensional character work is intentional; it's a result of the film occupying so completely Greg's point of view. It does not, however, necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and I tend to think it's just the opposite. It's true that these characters exist primarily as backdrop to Greg's emotional growth, but it's telling that none of them actually help him in his maturation. In fact, most of his growth occurs because the characters get sick of his self-absorbed bullshit and shut him out of their lives. Even though the film is seen through Greg's eyes, the audience still gets clues as to how his actions are really impacting people, through subtle gestures or looks we can see what Greg ignores, we can see when he's saying the wrong thing or ignoring someone else's feelings. This is a bit of form and a bit of function, as Greg's emotional arc requires him to become less self-involved and more open to forming attachments to those around him, so the film is required to open up at times as well. This is most poignantly driven home late in the film when Greg visit's Rachel's room. He's spent countless hours within that room, but is just now noticing the tiny details; the small drawings Rachel sketched into the pattern of her wallpaper, the intricately carved out books on her shelves, the photos of her friends and family. The accumulation of a life lived that he was unaware of.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may populate it's runtime with stock stereotypes, but it also takes the effort to suggest that these stereotypes have an existence beyond what we see. It would be easy enough to imagine this story being told from the point of view of any of the primary characters. Which is part of why I fell in love with this movie; teenagers are self-involved assholes. This is just fine, it's not a judgment call, we all were at that age. But a lot of teen-oriented movies seem to forget that fact, and they idealize the period of our lives when we're at our worst and most awkward. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also idealizes this period, but it has the honesty to acknowledge that a lot of our actions at this age are regrettable, to say the least.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

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