WRITTEN REVIEW – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Jesse Andrews
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal & Nick Offerman
Music: Brian Eno & Nico Muhly
Release Date: September 4th 2015
As we approach the end of 2015, we find ourselves inundated with critically acclaimed awards-contenders. Whether it’s big technical films like ‘The Martian‘ or ‘Everest‘, relevant biopics like ‘The Danish Girl‘ and ‘Suffragettes‘ as well as hard-as-nails grit like ‘The Revenant‘ and ‘Beasts of No Nation‘, there will be a lot of competition as the year draws to a close. But one film that has received some of the most praise of the year on the festival circuit has had practically no buzz since its incredible debut at the Sundance Film Festival back in January; ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘.
Not only did the movie, based off the Jesse Andrews 2012 book of the same name, get a standing ovation but it also received two top prizes; the “Grand Jury Prize” and the “Audience Award”. So it was loved by the festival-hosts and the audience who attended. But ever since its debut there, it’s not been talked about or mentioned as awards-buzz for other movies start to mount. Though, to be fair, hardly anything from this year’s Sundance has garnered much buzz. So what gives here? Is ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ being overlooked, even with the book’s author writing the screenplay? Is it just too cooky and off-beat for Awards-Season and was it deserving of the Sundance Praise? Well, now that it’s finally been released to the general public, we can find out for sure.
Greg Gaines (Mann) is an awkward teenager coasting through high school by casually blending in, making as few friends as possible but being on good terms with all of the cliques. But he’s pushed out of his comfort zone by his parents when they learn that one of his fellow students, Rachel Kushner (Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia (TL;DR – cancer of the bone marrow) and he is forced to befriend her during her time of need. The two start to become friends and Greg even tells her about him and his co-worker Earl’s (Cyler II) hobby of making home movie parodies. But with Greg’s low opinion of himself, he has difficulty opening up more as Rachel slowly starts to succumb to her illness while Greg and Earl work to try and make a movie for her before she dies.
Just a passing glance at ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ and you can tell it’s the living embodiment of “Festival Bait”. Let’s go through the check-list.
– Hipster Main Character? Check.
– Cancer? Check.
– Quirky Narration? Check.
– Cutesy-Poo Chapter Headings? Check.
– Wes Anderson inspired camerawork? Check.
– Movie Affectation? Check.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ is a manufactured piece of festival bait through and through. That doesn’t mean that bait can’t be bad, or that bait can’t be an enjoyable watch, but you get the sense that it was made to be enjoyed by an incredibly selective audience. Which would explain why the first 10-15 minutes of this movie were a near-insufferable watch as it felt like it was only making certain creative and narrative decisions in order to play well at festivals.
But this disregard to the casual audience member is mostly apparent in where the movie has its biggest stumbling block; the titular “Me”, Greg Gaines. This guy…is a terrible protagonist. Obviously, movies can start with a flawed person who becomes better over time through life experiences, but ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ introduces a morally reprehensible main character and never seems to be aware of this. The movie is aware that Greg is a self-loathing hipster with poor social skills, but he has absolutely no motivation to help out anyone but himself and he never actually learns from the events of the movie or changes.
There’s not a single thing that Greg does in this movie that he does of his own volition. When his parents ask him to see his dying school friend near the beginning of the movie, Greg throws a fit which ends with him crawling towards his bedroom on the floor groaning and moaning like a five year old.
Greg, I know you’re a high-school student and a teenager, but grow the fuck up.
Greg has to be coerced into meeting Rachel, Greg resists making a movie for her and it’s down to the movie’s oddly-placed eye-candy Madison to talk him into it, Rachel has to guilt trip Greg to look at Colleges for him to go to after he finishes high school etc. Now, this would be fine if one of two things happened; 1) Greg grows up and decides to be pro-active and not be so selfish because it’s the right thing to do. 2) Greg doesn’t grow up and realises that was the wrong approach.
There is one scene in ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ where Greg gets called out on his stupid, selfish and idiotic behaviour and it’s the best scene in the movie for multiple reasons, but once that scene is over the movie stops being self-aware about its “protagonist” and it’s right back at square one. This is not only disappointing because the best scene in the movie is left obsolete for the most part, but because the movie just doesn’t seem to realise how much of a dick Greg actually is. It also doesn’t help that Greg narrates over the movie talking about how this isn’t a touching love story, or that him and Rachel aren’t falling in love. While it’s nice that there is a platonic relationship in a young-adult movie between a boy and a girl, the fact that the movie feels the need to point this out all the time prevents it from feeling like a breath of fresh air because it’s done in order to be contrarian.
Incidentally, the movie opens with Greg saying that he made a movie that was so bad that is killed someone. Then about an hour into the movie, as Rachel starts to lose her spirit and her fight, he ensures the audience through narration that she doesn’t die and he even reminds them of this a bit later on. Then when the ending does happen, he apologises to the audience for “lying”.
Except he told two versions of the outcome. Which lie is he apologising for and why the shit didn’t the proof-reader point that out? I know this is a low-budget movie, but couldn’t you hire a proof reader for $100? I’d have done it for a $10 pledge to my Patreon.
But in regards to Greg, it REALLY speaks volumes about how terrible your main character is when someone has to literally be on the brink of death for him to learn a lesson.
Anyway, we’ve talked about “Me”. Let’s talk about “Earl” who is kind of an enigma. Greg doesn’t like to call Earl his “friend” (probably because friends are too mainstream) so he’s his “co-worker”. Really, I don’t know what to make of Earl. He’s a quiet, but confident student who is obsessed with “titties” but a lot of his dead-pan humour fell phenomenally flat. It’s nothing to do with the performance as the material is mostly hopeless to begin with, but Earl starts to come into his own as a good character as the movie progresses even if it feels too little too late by that point.
We’ll get to “the Dying Girl” in a moment, but let me touch on the rest of the supporting cast. Hardly any of them act or speak like believable human beings. Whether it’s Greg’s dad played by an incredibly miscast Nick Offerman, an interestingly counter-cast Jon Bernthal as a history teacher who only exists for a single monologue that is way too specific to not feel contrived, or Greg’s high school crush Madison played by Katherine C. Hughes who you could have cut out of the movie entirely, the smaller characters feel extraneous. This is mainly because Greg is such a rigid protagonist with no desire to change that the supporting characters who would normally help advance his growth are left with nothing to do. Greg’s terrible characterisation literally drags the rest of the characters down with him.
However, “the Dying Girl”, Rachel played by Olivia Cooke is a revelation as a character and is easily the best thing about the movie. Cooke has done great work elsewhere such as “Bates Motel” or the decent horror film ‘The Quiet Ones‘ but she’s finally found a breakout role in ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘. She’s playing the best character and giving the best performance and she is a likeable co-lead who carries all of the emotion in the movie, because Greg and Earl sure as shit ain’t going to.
Cooke has a natural likeability so seeing her break down more as the disease takes its toll over the course of the movie is pretty darn sad to watch, even though it is very manipulative. But she is put front and centre in what is easily the best scene in the movie where she tells Greg that she’s going to stop her chemotherapy because she keeps getting sicker. The entire scene is filmed in a single take with a static camera with Cooke near the front of the shot and it’s the most well written, most well balanced scene in the film and the only time ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ feels genuine in its story-telling and its emotions with most of that due to Cooke’s heart-breakingly great performance. No wonder Steven Spielberg has brought her on board for his upcoming ‘Ready Player One‘ movie.
That scene not only sticks out because of its quality, but because it’s the only scene in ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ that doesn’t feel obnoxiously manufactured which isn’t helped by the direction and the baffling use of many camera angle and camera movements that literally serve no narrative or functional purpose other than screaming “NOTICE ME!” to the audience. So many shots in this movie just reeks of a desire to stand-out with very little consideration to what works for that moment in time or what tone the sequence it’s in requires. No wonder the best scene in the movie has the camera completely static.
The music is about what you’d expect for this type of film, but feels varied and is included at the appropriate moments. The production design is a high-point with many colourful locations and well thought-out costumes (except for the costumes to separate some of the high-school cliques which are just…absurd). There are also a few stop-motion animated sequences that take place in Greg’s mind but they also feel like an attempt to stand-out, in particular everything that happens before the title of the movie pops up is just a huge WTF that the movie never even attempts to replicate because it wants to be different instead of coherent.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ is unabashed festival-bait and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it gets so carried away in its need to stand-out, or appeal to festival-goers with its movie-making subplot, cooky direction and obnoxiously written narration that it forgets to tell a human story about likeable people. Greg’s characterisation is such a complete and total misfire that it drags most of the movie down with it, with ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ only able to come up for breath because Olivia Cooke carries all of the movie’s emotional baggage incredibly well. It’s not without merit but it’s so hipster that it hurts to watch at points with some sequences literally giving me a migraine they were so grating. A good movie is a good movie because it has an endearing cast of characters, inhabiting a compelling world with a coherant style and a strong emotional core. Not because your hipster main character does a Werner Herzog impression at one point.
I give ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 17th Sep 15