Cinephiles Rule In A High School Movie With Respect For Film History
Not many teen movies would devote an entire montage to a joke about Errol Morris' Interrotron. But for better and worse, most teen movies aren't Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
The scene parodying the documentary filmmaker's signature interview technique may seem overly esoteric, but in context it makes perfect sense. It comes as a young film obsessive tries to make a movie for a friend dying of cancer, his loving attention to detail flying over the heads of the bemused classmates he's roped into being interviewed with the device. More than just a wink-wink to cinephiles, the scene is the perfect encapsulation of how much difficulty our hero has fitting into the real world, no matter how hard he tries to do right.
"Me" is Greg, a pale, awkward teenage boy (is there any other kind in the movies?) played with gawky charm by Thomas Mann. "Earl" is Greg's only friend (RJ Cyler), a ribald kid who literally wanders into his life from the other side of the tracks. The two exist in a high school symbiosis that prevents them from having to get too close to anyone else, instead living on the margins of every other social group. In between, they spend their free time making parodies of classic cinema, allowing Greg to show off his spot-on Werner Herzog impression. They also coast on the good graces of their demented history teacher (a scene-stealing Jon Bernthal), who has "Respect The Research" tattooed on his neck.
Greg's perfect plan to sneak through teendom unnoticed is foiled by Rachel, the "dying girl": a cute classmate who's been diagnosed with cancer. After Greg's mom (the always lovely Connie Britton) pushes him into socializing with this poor soul, he's shocked to discover he actually enjoys spending time with Rachel. Maybe it's because she only asks not to be pitied; because she finds his films cool; or because she's played with a wry smile and raw feelings by Olivia Cooke, who has no interest in becoming just another terminal teen. Whatever the case, Greg soon has a mission: to make a film for Rachel and improve her mood as her health spirals downward. When he agrees to sit with her at lunch, they enter the war zone of the cafeteria with grins so infectious they leap off the screen like the Cheshire Cat's.
Me And Earl won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which makes it the textbook definition of a crowd-pleaser. It's based on the novel by Jesse Andrews, who also collaborated on the screenplay. Perhaps to ward off unfavorable comparisons to John Green and The Fault in Our Stars, Andrews has deployed Greg's interior monologue with snarky, acerbic digressions to strike like landmines at any sign of sentiment. Do Greg and Rachel seem like their blooming hormones are about to kick in during one of their hangout sessions in Rachel's lush, cavernous attic bedroom? Slow down, shippers: "This isn't a touching, romantic story," Greg insists, suddenly restaging the image so the two remain on opposite ends of the room. It's like a self-loathing Funny Games.
Such insistence on chastity and dispassion may be novel for a high school saga, but it also tries our patience. Greg and Rachel don't have to make out, but couldn't they do something with the remaining time Rachel has on Earth other than just sit around watching movies? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Greg's perverse inaction is also at odds with Me and Earl's many technical virtues, which seem like they belong in a hipper, more fanciful story. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, no doubt drawing from his time as personal assistant to Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu, uses a series of long takes, often stretching them past the point of comfort. In those pauses, his actors make us feel the awkward disquiet of adolescent interactions that the script fails to deliver. Also, film school students would kill to craft even one of Greg and Earl's lo-fi masterworks, which precisely mimic the aesthetics of their originals while adding potty humor, puppets and stop-motion animation. Yet Greg refuses to acknowledge he has any passion for filmmaking. He snaps at his dad (Nick Offerman, who seems born to be a teen movie dad) for making an innocuous comment about his talent.
For Greg to keep insisting that none of this means anything forces the movie to lower itself to his level, so that the principle conflict revolves around his own self-worth (he gives up on schoolwork and applying to college). This is at the expense of Rachel, who surely has other things on her mind as her cancer progresses—and also Earl, who doesn't get to develop beyond a one-note joke machine.
Still, it would be unfair to the film's many virtues to only focus on what it gets wrong. If every teen movie were as buoyant, stylish and aware of history as Me and Earl, the cultural landscape would feel a lot smarter. The end-credit list of Greg and Earl's filmography is worth the price of admission alone. A remake of the 1960 British thriller Peeping Tom called "Pooping Tom"? Now that's respecting the research.