Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (2015)
Clearly we are punting out into Festival season and there is something in the water, as at an unprecedented level I’ve got press screening requests flooding my inbox – would I like to see a special preview of Legend? Can you make it to a screening of the acclaimed Greenpeace documentary How To Change The World? No and yes respectively, but some of us still have a (swiftly changing) day-job y’know. Since TiFF is warming up I’m also being asked if I’d like to interview some talent across the pond – am I available to interview the composer behind Sicario? Alas no, I’m in London and there is a Atlantic ocean between us, but best of luck and I’ll be seeing the film anyway at a special preview I’ve already got in the diary for the last week of the month. Clearly with all the other mortal migration going on in the world it sucks to be me with all these privileged first world problems, a not dissimilar accusation levelled at the creative forces behind Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, adapted from his debut novel by scribe Jesse Andrews. I took this project on by reputation alone, I hadn’t even seen the trailer but the buzz it had generated from Sundance is still reverberating, so I threw caution to the wind and strolled along to the world of cine yesterday afternoon. Thankfully, this wasn’t a completely wasted journey.
The ‘me’ in this axiom is Greg (Thomas Mann), anxious, insecure, rudderless and in most other respects an atypical American teenager, drifting through the various clique led shoals of his Pittsburgh High School like a particularly nervous and curdled fish. Earl is his best friend (Ronald Cyler II), a more confident and spirited chap, the duo working together as budding cinephiles to remake and pastiche classics of world cinema in their abundance of spare time. Whether its a lo-fi 16mm Bergman tribute or a stop motion Kubrick influenced sock-puppet play the team have produced an oeuvre of over 42 films, constructed over their long friendship, ranging from Truffaut’s the 400 Bros to Welles Senior Citizen Caned. The dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), tragically diagnosed with leukaemia, and as their parents are mutual acquaintances Greg is instructed by to hang out with her as the decent thing to do. Their initial mutual antipathy starts to defrost as they get to know each better, and led by Greg’s self-referential voiceover the film charts their trials and tribulations over one long year of treatment and tantrums, where they both mature and make hard choices about their uncertain futures.
This is one of those quirky, ‘indie’ maybe slightly misunderstood films which could go either way, potentially drowning in the waters of pretentious twaddle or bathing itself in the gentle waters of empathy – the mechanics of Michel Gondry, the whimsy of Wes Anderson. It’s not difficult to see why some of the movie crowd have fallen for the picture, as Earl and Greg’s in-film efforts mean that there are plenty of insider jokes and general cinephile celebration, from Scorsese camera moves to Herzog impressions the movie is stuffed with a boundless love for the movies, from both craft and characterisation perspectives. There is also something of a plucky, underdog DIY aesthetic with brief animated interludes which is usual the hallmark of the worst of independent American cinema, but the charm offensive won me over and I was actually a little sad not to spend more time with Greg, his friends and his Pittsburgh plight. Some have criticised it as little more than an indie version of The Fault In Our Stars which is criticism I don’t quite understand, as both films are about maturing and facing mortal challenges without the venerable empathy or experience to process life’s great tragedies, with Earl approaching the material with more of a (dare I say it) slacker orientated sympathy. I understand where these criticisms come from but I think they can be a little unfair, not dissimilar to the barbs that Sofia Coppola receives as her work only being about immensely privileged white people moving through spectacular wealth and opulence, yet boo-hoo burdened with an aching sense of ennui – the heart bleeds. Well, that’s true but that’s the world she lives and was raised in, so maybe you should be able to dismiss such preconceived prejudices and enjoy these films for what they are – heartfelt dramas with characters to become involved in, during a not entirely unsuccessful 100 minute plunder for pathos.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on only his second feature throws every directorial trick in the book into this, swarming through breathless whip pans, deep focus staging, vertical tilting and tenacious tracking, throwing his camera around Pittsburgh with all the aplomb of a Tourette’s afflicted toddler. As such the visual display is quite self-conscious and attention seeking, but the decisions mostly enhance rather than detract from the experience, helping some of the jokes and dialogue exchanges to land with careful poise, and he’s wise enough to slow things down for crucial emotional character and narrative beats. Full marks for a superb deployment of a Brian Eno sourced score, specifically this which intensifies a crucial scene that we all knew was coming but nevertheless still packs a tear-stained punch, when the film isn’t lifting soundtrack cues and famous themes from the rich seams of world cinema history. The young cast acquaint themselves well with the heightened material, although some more backstory on Earl and Rachel wouldn’t have gone amiss, as Greg’s parents played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman get more colour and flavour than his peers in the film, particularly the latter who plays against his usual stern right-wing persona as an ambulatory home based psychologist with a strange affection for unusual foodstuffs. This is pleasant, harmless, occasionally humorous fun, with a small kernel of sadness at its core, and just like the titular rhyming couplet I’m trying to finish this review with a rhyme, but I’m afraid that today I just can’t seem to score;