Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came bursting out of Sundance on a river of praise. Now that it’s out of the festival hothouse and landing in regular theaters, I have to wonder what it is that sets it apart from all the other milquetoast suburbanite coming-of-age stories out there. In terms of actual content, there’s not much; for the most part it’s cobbled together out of the same tropes as ever, right down to framing it as the lead’s college application essay. There’s one aspect that I think goes a long way to explaining the Sundance reception, but we’ll get to that later.
The titular “me” is Greg (Thomas Mann), a whiny brat of a teenager. Of course, we’re not meant to call him a whiny brat; no, he’s “sensitive”. Earl (Ronald Cyler II) is his black friend, who naturally lives in a significantly worse neighborhood of their sleepy college town version of Pittsburgh, but one that’s a convenient walking distance away. Oh, and Greg doesn’t call Earl a “friend”, because he’s too pants-wettingly scared of taking anywhere near the risk involved in imbuing a relationship with any meaning.
And then there’s “the dying girl”. Thankfully, in the movie itself writer Jesse Andrews allows her an actual name: Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists that Greg go to try and comfort Rachel, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any extant relationship between the two. And we don’t really get any indication of why Greg’s mom cares that he do anything beyond sending a nice card or something; whether she knows Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon) or she’s a meddling crusader in other ways. No, it’s pretty much just because that’s what the script calls for, and if Greg doesn’t go visit Rachel we don’t have a movie — not that I’d chalk that up as a huge loss.
Rachel may get a name, but she doesn’t get much of a character beyond “the dying girl”; she’s a mass of clichés about how young people deal with serious illness. The Fault in Our Stars had better and deeper insights into this character, and I thought that movie was superficial pablum.
On the other hand, it’s only natural that Rachel is mostly a shell of a character, since Greg is such an overwhelming narcissist that he can’t bear to see beyond the surface of anything. I think that on some level Andrews understands that his character’s real problem is his massive and fragile ego, but he never really holds that up the the audience as a problem. In fact, when we do finally discover that Rachel has some shred of interiority, it turns out to be all about Greg again. The white boy’s reward for gaining the slightest shred of basic human decency is learning that the girl was waiting for him to accept the reward she’d already granted him before he did anything.
So why is it that the critics at Sundance loved this one? Well, you can read their reviews yourself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has more to do with Greg and Earl’s hobby than anything else. With the inspiration of Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) and the guidance of one of their teachers (Jon Bernthal), the pair make short films. Their formula is to take an existing movie, make the title “stupider”, and shoot something to match the new title. Midnight Cowboy becomes 2:48 PM Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange becomes Sockwork Orange, and so on. We don’t see more than a couple seconds of any one of these, and the gimmick isn’t nearly so smartly executed as, say, “sweding” in Be Kind Rewind. But it does allow the script to include dozens upon dozens of references to indie and highbrow film classics, which makes it catnip to a lot of the festival crowd.
Do I really mean to suggest that the critics at Sundance are so easily manipulated? Well, kinda, yeah. It’s got the basic structure and tone of a proven formula — though one far past its prime — and it throws up a smokescreen of flattery for a film fan’s taste. We all have our buttons; I certainly do, and I try to at least admit when mine are being pushed. The movie itself may be a morass of smarm and self-congratulation, but the filmmakers managed to figure out a way to get praise and press without actually being very good, and I suppose I can respect that accomplishment.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.