Last year, when people were talking up The Fault in Our Stars with phrases like ‘a love story like none other’ and ‘a cancer story that isn’t about cancer’, what I expected wasn’t the film that I ended up watching. I heard similar whispers taking their rounds when Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opened at Sundance Film Festival this year: how insightful and unabashedly touching it was, which has gained it a huge following in the indie community. While by no measure a dry or uninteresting film, it forgets to actually do much different while claiming in every frame to be so. The film is a make-or-break which relies entirely on how much of their emotions the audience invests in its main characters – Greg (the eponymous me), Earl and Rachel (the dying girl) – something it managed to get right. With a central cast that explodes with indie quirks, and vibrant cinematography that complements its soundtrack well, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that you feel like hanging out with, if only for its familiarity.
Greg is your average teenage high-school movie narrator archetype, putting every second of his time into avoiding parental conversation and any unwanted attention from eyes at school. Unlike any other high school film, Greg looks down the school cafeteria and sees a jungle where various ‘races’/’factions’/’clans’ are constantly eating each other and throwing nasty glances at the nerds/geeks. He tells us that he has maintained an outsider status at his high school, keeping out of any particular clan with a surgically crafted plan that has allowed him to achieve virtual invisibility. And all was going well until she came along – Rachel, the girl with stage four blood cancer – forcing Greg to come out of his awkward self-loathing shell and talk to some more kids during lunch. Along with him for the ride that will change him for the rest of his life, is his childhood buddy (whom he calls ‘co-worker’) Earl. Earl lives in the rough side of town with a brother who smokes cigars and likes to beat up kids (I’m not certain of this), his dog and parents who can only be assumed. Together, they share a passion for classic films which has led them to spend the better part of a childhood parodying them in the strangest ways possible.
Indie filmmaking began in a movement to stand out from conventional cinema as ‘approved’ by Hollywood and to create characters and tell stories that could never be before. This unfortunately also spawned an undeserved craving to be seen as different or counter-culture. Going out of his way to declare his work’s non-conformity, the director partakes in a cliché that has plagued directors before him, and will definitely after him. Hiding beneath all the weirdness and imaginative filmmaking is a story that all of us have heard, albeit with a fresh, sharp tongue. The protagonist is an average student who is so self-aware that almost everything he says is a clever allusion to skirting around film and romantic clichés. But the problem is, the film itself does not save itself from them, except for the one where the guy falls in love with the sick girl – something the script keeps bringing up. The real problem is not the overdone story in itself, but the almost annoying declarations that the film keeps making about how it isn’t. With films like Fruitvale Station and Whiplash winning over the critics and audience at festivals over the past couple of years, it is only understandable that indie filmmakers want their film’s detachment from Hollywoodization to be stressed upon as much as possible.
With the negatives out of the way, I can now move on to the many things that I found interesting with the film. For one, Thomas Mann proves to be the right choice for this sort of role, walking the fine line between awkward and jerk-like. A widely underrated virtue – nay, necessity – of coming-of-age films are characters that we can get behind and root for as they stumble their way into adolescence. Mann perfectly captures the sentiment carried by the film, one that is odd, messy but at the end of it, sweet. He is complemented by RJ Cyler’s Earl, who speaks with a swift comedic tongue and plays the Bender to Greg’s Fry/ the Groot to his Rocket/ the Ferb to his Phineas (depending on what you watch). He talks little, remains indifferent to most things and makes the scene around him a little lighter just by being there, staring into infinity as he is. Olivia Cooke too shows some real emotional depth in this feature, a real relief coming off of Ouija. The sheer amount of subtext inserted by her silent face looking as troubled as it is, adds a whole new layer to the film’s story. Giving Greg a helping hand in every which way from the sidelines is Nick Offerman, who plays his fish-munching, stay-at-home dad in the film.
The art of the film character is quite simple, yet the easiest to miss: not too perfect, not too deviant, and just complicated enough to make the audience curious as to what his/her next move might be. People cannot get behind a flawless man who doesn’t make decisions as they do, and I don’t need to talk about the other extreme. It’s the reason why The Fault in Our Stars’ Augustus Waters was cringe-inducing and forgettable, and it’s why people will always find themselves drawn to Batman over Superman. It isn’t hard to understand either: a flawless character is usually created when the creator fails to place himself in the mind of the character. This is somehow most felt in films set in the high school savannah, where to come off as a jerk or nerd is the easiest thing in the world. With mostly young faces and a task that even seasoned actors falter in sometimes, character formation and development ends up being more important than even plot. I’ve always said that if a school genre movie succeeds in just this much, it’s half way there already; and will mostly be enjoyable for what it is. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets this so right that after a point the film itself breaks away to silent dialogue which the audience doesn’t feel separated from.
It was clear to me from the first half hour of the film that the director is a steadfast cinephile, and it was not only because of the hobby of his two main characters. True, while their creative adaptations from ‘A Sockwork Orange’ to ‘A Box o’ Lips Wow’ were inspired and truly showing of the director’s own passions, the camera is where the magic happens. This is honestly the film where I’ve paid the most attention to the camera, and that’s because of the unusual rhythm it carries along to match the humorous tone of the film. It swerves, glides down and even jumps about excitedly as the scene demands of it: it is as though the camera reflects the jumpy mind of its narrator. A peculiar quality is imparted to the shots in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by the camera starting out most scenes at the top corner of the room. In a strange way, this is also a technique David Fincher also uses from time to time, in preparation for his long takes, although for some reason I don’t think it’s the same atmosphere intended by this film. Every space is therefore enhanced and widened so as to gain humour of the perspective, and to allow for the eye to move around the characters. In fact, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon puts to use many quirky techniques and references such as this to take what is otherwise an ordinary story to greater heights. One particular scene warrants mention here: when Greg is being lectured by his mother, the air is washed with old cinema and a grieving orchestra as he is dragged up the stairs and into his room, damsel in distress by invisible hands. What the combined effort of these does is elevate the wayward energy and oddball humour to their maximum, giving the audience a feeling that they’re watching something special.
Despite having so many interesting touches and a unique stylistic vision, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is at the end of the day a most ordinary meal made with the finest ingredients. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon shows real talent – something he ought to, considering his apprenticeship under Martin Scorcese – and his visually poetic antics are indulgent in a staccato pace of humour. The film is laden with memorable sequences that display both the irony of teenage worries and the gravity of mortal ones, with poignant taste. But between these and especially towards the end, are moments where the film desperately pulls at the viewer’s heartstrings with targeted gestures, which compromises a lot the movie has going for itself. There are many shades to Greg that remind us of Ferris Buellers and Scott Pilgrims (in fact, a lot of the direction here reminds me of Edgar Wright): a listless young man who when faced with growing up, decides to dramatically crawl further back into his pubescent shell and drawls on justifications. But what keeps you from walking away is the magic that starts to happen when all the stops are off, and the parts start working together. It is a special reaction that takes relatively thin material to a height wherefrom it looks wholesome and insightful, while really not saying anything different.