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« How Many Oscars Will ______ Win? | Main | So Linky Together »
Sunday
Feb012015

Sundance: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Michael C here with some thoughts on the newly minted Sundance award winner

Trying to pull off the tone of the disease movie is a tricky proposition. Not only is there the risk of crossing into a bullying sappiness that all but demands the viewer fill a quota of tear-filled buckets, there is also the opposite risk, where the film's insistence that it doesn't want your tears becomes its own kind of pandering, a persistent nudging that we should be moved by the characters' bravery. 

The most impressive thing about Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is how well it walks that line. It isn't afraid of tears, but it makes the journey to the emotional climax count as much as the destination, building towards subtler, wiser epiphanies than the "life can be painful" for which a lesser film would settle. [More...]

 Me and Earl is about shedding the all-encompassing self-absorption of adolescence, and the difficulty of being yourself when it so much easier to be what others would like you to be. It is sharp, moving and wildly entertaining. 

Thomas Mann plays Greg, the "me" of the title, your archetypal dorky teen guy. The film opens with his explaining his strategy of social survival, which consists of achieving invisibility by maintaining a casual acquaintance with every social circle in high school. Having too strong of an identity in any direction, he warns, means making oneself a target. He has but one friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he shares an obsession with art house cinema. He and Earl spend their time creating their own ersatz adaptations of their favorite Criterion titles. Perhaps you think it is self-serving and indulgent to pack a film with goofy homages to the greats of cinema. It may well be. It is also awesome. Greg and Earl's videos are everything Gondry's Be Kind Rewind wanted to be.

Greg's orderly existence as a social non-entity is thrown into a tumult when his mother (Connie Britton) insists he dislodge his head from his ass and do something nice for somebody else, specifically go spend time with Rachel, a girl in his class who has just been diagnosed with advanced leukemia (Olivia Cooke). Greg handles this assignment with all the gracelessness one would expect from an awkward adolescent who spends his lunch period hiding in a teacher's office watching Werner Herzog films. He presents himself on her doorstop as one more thing she must endure. Eventually they reach a mutual understanding, each appeasing their mother's desire that they not retreat into their respective shells. Their friendship, which eventually expands to include Earl, grows less as a result of any great connection and more through the sheer matter of hours logged. 

Throughout the film Greg's voiceover keeps a running commentary on the film's plot, mocking our expectations that it will blossom into doomed teenage romance a la The Fault in Our Stars. He also assures us there will be no cloying tearjerker climax since Rachel survives, although we question his qualifications as a reliable narrator.

The first wave of festival buzz has barely finished washing over Me and Earl and it's already easy to spot where the battle lines will be drawn when the film opens into wider release. Fans are swept up in its energy, its inventiveness. They are moved by its emotional wrecking ball of a climax. Detractors recoil from what they see as pile up of precious indie conceits, and lament the film's thin supporting characters all pressed into the service of an insufferable protagonist. The thing of it is, both side has their points. How you measure Me and Earl is a matter of what allowances you grant Gomez-Rejon and how you weigh the film's element in the final balance.

I let myself get swept up in the film's emotional currents and was rewarded with a series of powerful payoffs. Gomez-Rejon disarmed my defenses by coming at my heart from unexpected angles, delivering the catharsis we expect but in unexpected ways. To the charges that the supporting characters are thinly drawn I would point out that A) the whole film has a particular arch tone which means all the characters are a few degrees removed from reality and B) the fact that the supporting cast evolves from stereotypes at the film's beginning (quippy black friend/sensitive dying girl) into people with dimensions that break out of the boxes in which Greg has placed them is a big part of the film's point.

So, yes, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not flawless, by why should flawlessness be the standard? When the rewards are as substantial as they are here, I'm happy to wade through some indie clichés to get there.

Grade B

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Reader Comments (7)

How's Nick Offerman?

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

what a great year already for Alfonso Gomez-Rejon!
he was last nominated for an Emmy for directing that campy first episode of AHs:Coven

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterfadhil

Offerman is terrific. It's a small role but a scene stealer. It is also great to see him in a role that is the polar opposite of Ron Swanson

February 1, 2015 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

That top still (Offerman eating chicken on a porch in that outfit) has sold me on this film.

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne - Those are pig feet

February 1, 2015 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

I ♥ Nick Offerman!

February 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

The typo changing the title to Me and Earl in the Dying Girl from the second paragraph, sounds like the title of a poorly advised porno remake.

February 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersmc

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