Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature and another film in the seemingly endless line of young adult fiction adaptations that use cancer as an emotional crutch, comes to Sydney Film Festival’s official competition having garnered two awards at Sundance earlier this year. Its reception there, and at the State Theatre here in Sydney, is something of a disappointment; tears and laughs abounded, praise heaped on a film that, really, has no place being at a film festival at all. It’s a by-the-numbers coming of age story that, above all else, is a remarkably bland concoction, a surface level look at friendship, cancer and cinephilia which turns its characters into caricatures, and exists solely to allow an uninteresting protagonist to feel a bit better about himself.
As the title would suggest, we have a character triptych on our hands. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is our window into this world, a senior in high school who has survived ostracisation by never making any real friends, that is, except for Earl (Ronald Cyler II), his childhood friend from a “rougher” (read: exclusively African-American) neighbourhood and whom he calls a “co-worker” because of some poorly-elaborated commitment issues. Together they make short films which are creative reinterpretations of cinema classics, ranging from the subtly inspired (their Seconds parody is fantastic) to groan-inducing (every pun-related film montage thrown in to distract from the actual narrative). When a girl at their school, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) sends him over to cheer her up, therein beginning the film’s “doomed friendship.”
Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, is what sinks the film fairly early on. It’s oft-amusing, and there are some interesting verbal and visual jokes, but for a film propelled on the emotional connection between character and audience it’s disappointing to see a film with such poor character construction and development. Greg is a stock character in the leading role of his own film, a mopey apathetic white kid who has mentally divided his high school into categories (think Mean Girls, in fact, think every high school film with one of these dumb montages). Earl is another in the long line of ‘Magical Negro’ characters who exist solely to propel the development of a white protagonist; we learn nothing about his life (other than an aside about his single mother and poorer living conditions), his brother is a walking stereotype and his major actions in this film involve him explaining to Greg why he doesn’t appreciate himself enough, and then later pointing out his irrational response to a secret being leaked, leading to a “fight” that is supposedly a major life event for Greg. Rachel is also a mostly unexplored character, which is especially egregious considering her very existence is the plot of this film.
One could say that this narrowed view of others is reflective of how we, as an audience, are told the story from Greg’s perspective, with the frustratingly twee Scott Pilgrim-aping text of “x days of our doomed friendship” reminding us of this. That noted, though, so much of Greg and Rachel’s friendship is told through montage, we actually spend so little time with the two of them outside of ‘big’ conversations about school and death that their entire friendship can’t help but feel unreal, despite both actors turning in mostly strong performances. It’s only vaguely commendable as well, that the film lives up to its promise of not being “a touching love story”, Rachel isn’t turned into a romantic love interest explicitly yet, in her place, is one of her friends whose characterisation consists of being labelled “a hot girl”, and a string of animations meant to endear us to Greg because he’s an “awkward, pasty kid” but which only serve to render him even more of a caricature.
The adults are mostly hard done by as well, and whilst Nick Offerman and Connie Britton turn in solid performances they aren’t given anywhere near enough screen time to do anything but set up jokes or deliver punchlines. Molly Shannon, playing Rachel’s mother, is one of the stronger supporting roles, and spends much of the film fighting the juvenile script she’s been given; a single mother for whom much of her characterisation is vague sexual advances or language towards the boys, she owns perhaps the film’s only true emotional moment when talking about what it was like being a single mother to Rachel, only to have that be turned into a moment of physical comedy, as Greg and Earl exchange uncomfortable glances.
One of the major distinguishing elements that Me and Earl uses to set it apart from other recent ‘cancer teen’ films like The Fault in Our Stars is that the film ostensibly is about cinephilia, as Greg and Earl are obsessed with film and make these bizarro shorts. It’s an engaging conceit at points, but ultimately a shallow one; the posters in his room are mostly enlarged Criterion Collection cover art (the film uses Criterion films and discs as a shorthand for cinematic obsession), he wears a Nosferatu shirt around just so we don’t forget he likes films. The lack of subtlety is key here, the way in which props they made are placed prominently around his room following one of the shorts montages is lazy, particularly since as per the narrative all of those shorts are months, if not years, old. Even when the film doesn’t shout the film title it’s referencing (or borrow a film score, a la the stupefying inclusion of Vertigo‘s love theme), it’s still so hammy; the Play It Again, Sam homage with a Hugh Jackman photo, a makeshift Interrotron in the Errol Morris mould feel like overenthusiastic winks to the audience ‘in the know’.
Not only does it have mostly bland plot points and characters, the film’s cinematography is utterly uninteresting, which is a shock considering that the man at the camera’s helm was Chung Chung-hoon, Park Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer. It finds itself smeared with this beige colour palette and select shots seem almost designed to appear as Wes Anderson-lite. Outside of a vertical shift shot, and some of the work in their fake films, there’s little of value on show.
As it moves into its final half-hour, everything tends to go to pieces if you don’t buy into the characters or plot. It’s the point wherein the emotional screws are tightened, the impassioned yet false sounding arguments are raised. It’s not a particularly badly structured film, but once you see the narrative cogs turning, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reveals itself to be little more than a disingenuous collection of clichés.
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