Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

September 19, 2015
Sundance Favorite 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'  featuring Thomas Mann & Olivia Cooke
Sundance Favorite 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' featuring Thomas Mann & Olivia Cooke

Many viewers will be touched, charmed, moved and seduced by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Hey, it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, so it must be doing something right. There is a lot to like about this film, but also a niggling feeling that we are being sold some dubious values under a warm blanket of feel-good filmmaking.

Teenagers are notoriously self-obsessed. They’ll tell you it’s not their fault, simply a matter of raging hormones. Even by the usual standards of teen weirdness, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), presents a severe case of heightened self-consciousness and low self-esteem. Or so it seems.

In a Pittsburg high school beset with freaks and divided into tight little subcultures, Greg strives to be invisible. He has learnt to mimic the language of every group so as to fit in seamlessly. Gomez-Rejon and writer, Jesse Andrews, have had a lot of fun creating Greg’s peers, which must be only very slight exaggerations of the different types that inhabit an average school.

To maintain his low profile Greg has made himself into a hermetic personality. While blending in with everyone, he identifies with no-one. The only exception is Earl (R.J.Cyler), a black kid from a poor neighbourhood, that Greg refers to as a “co-worker” rather than a friend.

Greg and Earl are movie buffs who spend their lunchtimes watching classic films in the office of history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). For years they have been filming short spoofs of great movies, building up a library of titles – A Sockwork Orange, Pooping Tom, 2.48 pm Cowboy, Eyes Wide Butt, and so on. They are aware this smacks of adolescent humour, but it’s become an obsessive project – a secret activity that distinguishes them from their schoolmates.

Greg’s self-contained lifestyle is put in jeopardy when his mother (Connie Britton) suddenly insists that he go and visit another student who has been diagnosed with leukemia. This is a burden for Greg, because in his anatomising of school subcultures he had always put Rachel (Olivia Cooke), under the heading: Boring Jewish Girl.

At this point you may recognise a wellworn pattern of the coming-of-age saga – self-obsessed adolescent male is forced to open himself up to another person’s pain. In the process he achieves a new sense of empathy and maturity.

This is roughly what happens, but Greg is so resistant to joining the human race, and Rachel so non-plussed by his awkwardness that the story is charged with comedy.

The deadpan sobriety of Greg and Rachel’s exchanges is thrown into relief by the bizarre nature of the adults in the film. Greg’s father (Nick Offerman), is a university lecturer who spends much of his time wandering around the house in a dressing gown, devising unusual meals. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) is a single parent struggling with sexual frustration and an addiction to the bottle. When Greg comes to the door she almost gobbles him up, like the witch in a fairy tale.

Under the subliminal pressure of his new-found friendship with Rachel, Greg begins to slip up. He loses his invisibility and his schoolwork suffers. It’s a love story at one remove, because Rachel is labouring under a death sentence and Greg can’t permit himself to give way to his feelings. He even argues with Earl, who comes back to support him when needed.

The big idea that moves the story towards a conclusion is that Greg must make a film for Rachel – not a spoof of a Hollywood classic, but a heartfelt, inventive work that touches her declining spirits.

We are sucked right into this story, in which Gomez-Rejon employs every trick and device, including brief animated sequences. It occasionally feels like a film made by a director who is worried he won’t get another chance. As this is only his second feature, and it has been a raging success, he is probably on the verge of a stellar career.

It was only upon reflection that I began to have misgivings. Rachel may be dying, but the entire story is told through the medium of Greg’s self-torturing sensitivities. By the end she appears as nothing more than a vehicle for Greg’s search for maturity, as if his own ascent to adulthood were more significant than her imminent extinction.

The character of Earl is just as problematic. It’s never clear how Greg, from a white upper middle-class neighbourhood, ever became friends with a black kid from the slums. Even allowing for Greg’s ultra-defensive personality there’s a lingering suspicion that he is secretive about this relationship because it constitutes a racial and social taboo.

Earl, who has the stereotypical cool and toughness of a boy from the wrong side of town, is cast as Greg’s protector. He demonstrates a more humane attitude towards Rachel, and helps Greg out of a jam, but he is similarly treated as a prop whose chief function is to enable his friend to grow up.

As the entire film is narrated by Greg, it could be argued that it’s understandable we view Rachel and Earl through his eyes, seeing them as actors in the unfolding drama of his own teen-age traumas. It’s understandable, but slightly repellent, as if Greg doesn’t grow up after all, but remains trapped in a narcissistic bubble. But perhaps one has to adopt a sociological perspective. With a new wave of cultural hypersensitivity passing through US campuses it may be that narcissism now qualifies as a form of maturity.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenplay & novel by Jesse Andrews
Starring Thomas Mann, R.J.Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon
USA, rated M, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19th September, 2015.