by Philip Price
Everything about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” screams artsy film festival fodder. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact a decade ago that description would have suggested anything but a bad thing, and yet there is such a stigma around films molded on the tendencies of Wes Anderson now that they've become ripe for criticism. What also doesn't help “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's” case is the level of self-reference it operates within. At one point, how can we expect any person or movie to exist without a certain level of self-awareness when the environment we live in is a heightened social media one where each of us are called out for the clichés of our life and yet, on the other end, there is still the viable option of embracing one's self or one's story wholeheartedly to the point the audience is enveloped in the earnestness. It's a tough choice to make and just because “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” decides to go way in one direction doesn't immediately make it a recycled, overused picture that lacks real meaning or effect because the techniques it uses to convey it's story may no longer be as fresh or meaningful as they once were. This is the area where some seem to have accused the film of being trite or even irritating, but beneath all of the style that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has smothered upon Jesse Andrews quip-heavy screenplay adapted from his own novel I find it hard to believe anyone could justly deny the emotion and straight-up craft the film also packs into its running time. This brings us to the beginning of the film where our protagonist and narrator, Greg (Thomas Mann), can't decide how best to begin his story and thus debates between a trope such as, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." or simply remaining in his head so as to guide us through his thought process. As the latter wins out we are given examples of what Greg might consider the best of times and what might qualify for the worst. Before springing into the title credits Greg looks to his left to see what would indicate that what he's recently experienced, what he's going to tell us about, were indeed the best of times even if he didn't realize it in the moment.
Greg is a high school senior who has done his best throughout the years to stay low-key and integrate himself only partially into every group the school has to offer so as to be known and noticed by all without ever placing himself in the position of being pigeon-holed into one particular clique. His mother (Connie Britton) is overbearing in a way that sees her strangely forcing her son into awkward social situations while pushing him to think of his future in the most grating of ways. On the other hand, his father (Nick Offerman) is a laid-back sociology professor who mostly lumps around the house watching old foreign films and making weird seafood snacks. If Greg has one legitimate friend in the world it is Earl (a breakout performance from RJ Cyler) who he lives in the same neighborhood with, but on the nicer side of things (the film photographs Pittsburgh as a charming town occupied mainly by a lovely little neighborhood). Since they were little, Greg and Earl have apparently been fascinated with those old foreign films Greg's dad is always watching and, as they've grown up, have developed a sincere love for the Criterion Collection which they now make their own, (very) low-budget versions of. Couple this with the main storyline that deals with Greg's mom forcing him to hang out with her friends daughter Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia and you have the perfect recipe for a whimsical take on the current generation that has so graciously been deemed completely narcissistic while also indulging the droves of cinephiles who will be the main (and probably only) audience for such a film. In essence, if one were to combine last years “The Fault in our Stars” with 2008's “Be Kind Rewind” you would have “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” While I enjoyed both of those films well enough based on what they were trying to be I always felt as if the reality of Michel Gondry's film never lived up to its possibilities and I somewhat feel the same way about what Gomez-Rejon has crafted here. In short, it is efficiently paced with a large attention to detail (especially in the set decoration), but has one too many endings that are necessary despite feeling tacked on. I will say with how the culmination is executed I received legitimate chills and that ultimately the good largely outweighs the bad.
"In short" is putting this films ideas and accomplishments in too trivial a category though. The aforementioned and supposed inherent narcissism of the generation within which these characters and today's young people exist both fuels and detracts from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” It becomes evident early on that the script would seemingly sacrifice genuine emotional investment (no matter how cliché-ridden) to simply go the opposite route of what we expect (which is to say, to avoid clichés). Do you avoid emotion just to avoid cliché though? This is the conundrum the film runs into and doesn't have an answer to other than to continue subverting expectations in order to keep up the hip facade it will eventually have to succumb to if it wants to be honest rather than acting as if it knows all the answers. That the film doesn't know what to do when it comes to the fork in the road of how to make dying from cancer unique is what ultimately redeems it though. It is inescapable. It doesn't make sense. And unfortunately, there's no way to make any sense out of it no matter how hard one might try. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” tries, make no doubt about it, but about halfway through the film when Greg's crush, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), convinces him and Earl it would be a good idea to make a movie for Rachel we begin to see the wheels turning in the writers head as his story seemed to evolve as he wrote it. How nice it might have been to think they (meaning Andrews, Gomez-Rejon, Greg and Earl) could come up with a grand finale of sorts, a statement that perfectly encapsulates all the emotion and substance that life has to offer in a hand-crafted short film that would neatly tie a bow on top of a life, but instead come to the conclusion there is no amount of words or images that can give a sense of closure to a mentality otherwise ready to finally take on the world. This brings us back around to the characters and the film itself being narcissistic by nature when in reality this is a story from a specific point of view, a view that is admittedly not as worldly as Greg would like to admit (watching so many foreign films has to count for something though, right?) and therefore only makes sense that it thinks it knows everything to begin with, but is given a reality-check when the world slaps it across the face with a concept it can't quite handle much less explain.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about teenagers first and foremost and their attempts at dealing with mortality — a subject not many people even consider at that age, but rather accept simply as part of the circle of life rather than a chance encounter if your chosen body chooses not to function properly. Within this exploration it is vital to remember it is Greg's and not that of Rachel's who we naturally come to like more than our self-involved, self-loathing narrator who actually exudes a strong sense of superiority. As Greg, Mann is quite effortless in conveying this sense of ideals rather than an actual human being. Whether it be in his attempts to not get too close to anyone (referring to Earl as a co-worker rather than a friend) or in lampooning his favorite films he's never forced to make any kind of commitment or anything wholly his own thus allowing him to get away with never coming to terms with who all these influences have created in human form. This makes for perfect reasoning when thinking of how, despite Greg's world fully revolving around him, he finds it both difficult to make an original piece for Rachel as well as write a letter to the college admissions office that is used as the framing device. There is also a terrific scene between Mann and Cooke (captured in a single take I might add) that addresses this glaring issue of Greg making Rachel's illness about him rather than consulting how she might be inept at dealing with the hand she's been dealt. This scene alone addresses the fact that this is Greg's story and how Rachel's circumstances will affect his life more immediately rather than her own.
Outside of the strong themes that aren't only discussed but actively demonstrated surrounding the essence of this transition from being in a state of adolescence to that of actual maturity there are several strong performances that perfectly balance that sense of narcissism and perspective that Greg can't yet attain. Whether it be that of the minor contributions from Jon Bernthal or Molly Shannon (who is truly moving in a scene where she discusses how there are some things you can't protect your children from) to that of the tonally uneven, but revelatory showing from Cyler that adds the perfect counter medicine the film needed to not come off too pretentious. Greg doesn't realize he's in the good ole days as they're happening and that's perfectly fine because he'll come to that realization at the appropriate time, but we as an audience would be just as naive if we looked over this film as little more than another coming of age tale told in hipster fashion rather than the touching and ultimately soulful film that it is.