Saturday, 18 March 2017

INDEPENDENT FILM: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (USA, 2015)
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman

In my review of Still Alice, I complained about the way that Hollywood films often depict life-threatening illness, seeking to preserve the glamour of the actor or actress in question rather than trying to capture a believable portrayal of whatever disease they may have. Invoking the example of Gus van Sant's Restless, I said that "if the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs."

I am by no means the first reviewer to have carped about this tendency of Hollywood, which has led many a cinema patron to abandon the mainstream and seek out how the independent film scene deals with death. Here, though, there is another, often more irritating problem: many independent films go out of their way to make death as quirky or pretentious as possible, and we come to hate the ailing characters so much that it takes all our moral courage to not shout "hurry up and die!". Fortunately, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not one of these films; instead it overcomes its early snarkiness to end up as surprisingly tender.
When I reviewed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I complained that the film's characters were "frustratingly smug", with writer-director Stephen Chbosky going to great (and clunky) lengths to prove how well-versed he was about music and teenagers. The post-modern technique of drawing attention to Hollywood cliché to make a point about how un-Hollywood your story is has long started to grate, whether it's in a visual motif or a line delivered by the characters. This overbearing desire to be different (whether it's un-Hollywood or un-anything else) is present in spades in the opening ten minutes of Me and Earl; its turned-up-nose voiceover is almost enough to make you shut the whole thing off.
Fortunately, the film very quickly abandons this approach and settles into a pleasant rhythm which is offbeat without drawing attention to itself. Once it's proved its indie credentials - trying too hard to be Wes Anderson in the process - it emerges more confidently as its own story, particularly once the central triangle of friendships has been laid out. There are still familiar touches in both the narrative decisions and their presentation to the audience, but the film is more settled and mature with regard to them, calmly acknowledging and almost embracing its lineage rather than spitting in their face like a hypocritical, snot-nosed punk.
One of the main reference points for the film is Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's film from nine years ago in which Jack Black and Mos Def have to re-enact old Hollywood films after accidentally wiping all the tapes in a rental shop. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cut his teeth directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story; while his character construction is a welcome departure from Ryan Murphy and his ilk, he shares with Murphy a deep love for cinema and an intrinsic understanding of how genre works. The enthusiasm between Greg and Earl as they create their little bits of cinema feels genuine because it reflects the director's own passion, without any of the artificiality that J. J. Abrams displayed on Super 8.
By making filmmaking such a focal point of the story - or at least, such a prominent means of moving the plot forward - Gomez-Rejon makes a point about just how emotionally powerful storytelling and narrative memory can be. He may essentially be paraphrasing or pastiching Cinema Paradiso in this regard; the sequence before Rachel falls into a coma uncannily follows the beats in the final twenty minutes of Giuseppe Tornatore's work. But he does it very well, bringing emotional warmth and believability to what in other hands could be an exercise in total indulgence.
One of the criticisms of Me and Earl has been that the film uses the illness of its female character to tell a very male story. Max Weiss, writing in Baltimore Magazine, summed up her review by saying: "Rachel's dying isn't really about Rachel at all. It's about Greg. In fact, everything that happens in the film is about Greg." You would certainly find its hard to argue that Greg isn't the central protagonist, or that his arc is the one which develops the most over the course of the film - the clue, after all, is in the title. But Rachel doesn't get completely short-changed in the way that Zooey Deschanel did in (500 Days of) Summer; she's still a well-written character whose actions are more than mere plot machinations.
What you get with Me and Earl is a handful of teenage relationships which are driven by an inability to communicate in a meaningful way. Greg and Earl work on their films because it is the only means they have of expressing their feelings towards each other; it is an adolescent form of engagement, which Earl grows out of by the end of the film, with their friendship endings as their means of communication is removed. Their confrontation towards the end of the film is a tearing down of emotional walls, releasing anger and compassion that neither character entirely knew that they were capable of feeling.
Equally, Greg's distance from Rachel is not just temporal, it is emotional; he cannot comprehend the right thing to say with confronted by something so serious, because pretending and being flippant is all he knows. Rachel has agency here too, having to deal with her illness in a way which is stoical while still true to who she really is. Their companionship, which blends sympathy and a sense of distance, is very touching, and the more time we spend with them the more we find ourselves enjoying their company, even amongst the odd line or action which causes us to roll our eyes in derision.
This awkwardness, reluctance and inability to either reach out or break through emotionally has been a feature of coming-of-age and counter-cultural filmmaking for decades. Me and Earl may not be the most groundbreaking film in its treatment of this condition of modern youth, but it is among the more honest and naturalistic offerings in this field. Its teenagers feel like real teenagers, and the moments in which they irritate older viewers (like myself) is in a way testament to the strength of their characterisation. This is not a film full of sanitised, model teenagers played by people in their 30s - it's a film made to resonate with people the age of its protagonists, at least in its approach to their interaction.
Where Me and Earl begins to score points in a more universal fashion is in its treatment of Rachel's illness. It isn't a Hollywood treatment of illness, with all the edges taken off, but neither does it try to be edgy or radical by shoving her symptoms down our throats in a desperate bid to induce empathy through shock. Like Julianne Moore's character in Still Alice, Rachel deteriorates gradually and at her own pace, so that all the down turns feel authentically sad and the brief moments of hope and life are all the more radiant. The make-up work is excellent given the film's relatively low budget of $8m, and the lighting is sensitive without telegraphing anything to the audience.
The other nice touch to the film is the role of the adults, who are just as emotionally inept as their offspring if not sometimes slightly worse. The spectre of Wes Anderson loom large over this portion of the film too; it's a similar pre-conception to that which he employed with some success in Moonrise Kingdom. But while Anderson used it as the basis for an off-puttingly clinical study of his characters, Gomez-Rejon uses it to promote what good qualities his young leads have. The way that all the adults seem either apathetic towards the kids' plight or dealing with it in all the wrong ways pushes us towards Greg, Earl and Rachel, if nothing else to give us comfort that we may deal with a similar situation in a better fashion.
There are a couple of issues with the film, besides its snarky opening, which prevent from being a total success. While the central three characters are believable, many of the high school scenes feel like the director settling for convention; they don't play an enormous role in the film, and you get the impression that Gomez-Rejon was happy filling them with stereotypes if it meant he could get them done and dusted more quickly. The subplot regarding Greg's college application also feels a little redundant; it adds a secondary character objective where it is unneeded and unwanted, and its resolution is far too neat.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a tender and charming independent effort which overcomes its irritating opening to leave us genuinely moved. Gomez-Rejon directs assuredly, balancing his life of his chosen art form with a desire to keep the characters at the centre, and he is ably complimented by a trio of good performances from his three leads. It isn't as good as Still Alice, and much of it is rooted in very familiar territory, but as an antidote to Hollywood's continuing attitude to illness, it is a very welcome offering.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Faculty (1998)

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