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Non-Review Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

There is a weird sense of entitlement that runs through certain strand of indie cinema, one that argues that a certain kind of comfortable middle-class male angst is almost overwhelming. At the risk of generalising, it feels like a millennial anxiety, the sense that the world was promised to an eager young generation who have found themselves subsisting as passengers and background extras in a world that was supposed to bow to their whims.

The emotionally immature male protagonist who must learn to embrace his gift and be himself (or self-actualise or self-realise, depending on how you feel about the trend) is ubiquitous.  It is arguably nothing new. Certainly, one can trace a clear lineage between the stock Woody Allen protagonist and any number of modern cinematic depictions of middle-class masculinity, from Listen Up Philip to Liberal Arts.

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Sometimes the trope works well, with nuanced writers and directors (and actors) finding something interesting to say about these feelings of anxieties. Directors like Wes Anderson come to mind. Indeed, Wes Anderson’s quirky sensibilities are all over Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; the film is even produced by Indian Paintbrush, the studio responsible for a lot of Anderson’s more recent output.

However, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like a pale imitation of Anderson – with chopped up little bits of other well-regarded indie films thrown into the mix. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is populated with affectionate homages to classic cinema, frequently referencing the work of Werner Herzog. However, its most distinctive visual element is the inclusion of home-made cinematic homages in the style of “sweding” from Be Kind Rewind.

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At the centre of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg Gaines. Greg hates himself, something the film is careful to stress repeatedly, in case his dialogues and actions don’t make that clear. Greg is a high schooler who has socially isolated himself from others so as to avoid the potential pains of intimacy; he refers to his closest friend, Earl, as his “co-worker.” In a painfully awkward scene, Earl spells out that this is because Greg has intimacy issues.

The film is focused on just how tough it is to be Greg Gaines. He has no plans for the future, no ambitions for life beyond high school. He is content to pass under the radar, despite the fact that he is smart and talented and likeable. He repeatedly receives self-esteem boosting pep-talks from those around him, when he is not dealing with a dysfunctional home life involving his nagging mother and quirky college professor father.

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This would arguably be irritating on its own terms, but the problem is how the film decides to emphasise Greg Gaines’ emotional issues and his social anxieties. Greg lives a comfortable middle-class existence, but is surrounded by characters who do not enjoy those luxuries. His friend Earl lives in a “rough neighbourhood”, and hangs out with him to escape his own troubles; however, Earl is nothing but a passenger on Greg’s self-loathing journey.

Early in the film, Greg is forced to befriend Rachel Kushner, a young girl who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. However, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is never really interested in the story of Rachel Kushner. She lacks any real agency in the narrative, existing as a motivating factor for Greg’s character arc. When he needs to come out of his shell, she is the catalyst; when he needs a third act complication, she dutifully provides one.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is essentially the story of how tough it is to be the friend of somebody who is dying of cancer. There is something noxiously indulgent about the very concept of the film, and the way it is structured. Greg is clearly intended to provoke some sort of sympathy from the audience, with the other characters in the film repeatedly stressing how great he truly is underneath that cynical exterior.

Rachel is pretty much explicitly defined in terms of her relationship with Greg; the third act of the movie is almost entirely devoted to how Rachel exists to make Greg feel complete and fulfilled. Despite the fact that she is dying of cancer, the film is less concerned with what Rachel is enduring than the fact that Greg probably doesn’t like himself as much as he should. That’s the real tragedy here. It feels as misjudged as The Impossible.

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There is something inherently cynical about the “dying kid” genre that has seen a surge of popularity in recent years. In genre work, there is typically a reluctance to kill off children; it is considered crass or exploitative, it can easily seem like a lazy way to manipulate the audience. It takes a great deal of skill to kill off a child in a way that doesn’t feel like a transparent attempt to catch the audience off-guard. That is as true of indie films as it is of horror films.

The way that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl uses Rachel feels crass. It feels like a conscious effort to take an emotional shortcut, to leverage child mortality for a cheap emotional response. Rachel is very clearly a tool of the narrative, rather than a driving force; she is another way to heap more pity and more sympathy on to the long-suffering and angst-prone Greg.

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To be fair, Olivia Cooke offers the film’s best performance with the film’s weakest material. Watching Cooke work with the short snippets of personality that the script affords her hints at a much better film than the one that was actually released. Perhaps “The Dying Girl and Earl and Me” might make for a more interesting film. It might even manage some of the worthiness to which the film aspires.

The film tries to hide its schmaltziness with a self-aware cynical narration that calls attention to the clichés even as it employs them. Greg mocks the idea that Rachel’s mortality affords her thoughts any more weight or depth; however, the film wholeheartedly endorses it. It seems that the real proof that Greg is a good person comes from the fact that a dying kid points it out. This is not the only cynical lie that the narrative tells in a manner more frustrating than cute.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl almost plays as a parody of indie film making conventions. The film is broken down into a bunch of indiosyncratic chapters, handily labelled “the part where…” All that is missing is the pretentious black title card. All of the adult characters are portrayed as collections of quirks rather than fully-realised individuals, with Nick Osterman’s muumuu-wearing father and Jon Bernthal’s tattooed history teacher standing out.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is fond of negative space and spinning camera shots, shooting Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in a way that feels like a better pastiche on cliché indie style than the films-within-films of Trainwreck or (500) Days of Summer. That said, at least those films-within-films were aiming for parody rather than unintentionally straying across into it.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a terrible film that feels like somebody sutured the worst tendencies of a certain style of contemporary film-making into a script and then produced it in the most trite manner possible. Ugh.

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4 Responses

  1. Heh, I love the snark in this review and the film does indeed sound dreadful.

    One aspect I’d be wary of though is the assumption of a longstanding monolithic ‘white’ identitity in this genre though. To begin the protagonists are frequently Jewish – this is very obvious in the Woody Allen flms but it actually is a contstant thread even in more recent films like ‘Adventureland’ or ‘Garden State’ (in that film the first moment the protagonist shows any enthusiasm at all is in discussing his cultural background.) That gets into hazy territory about minorities and ‘whiteness’ of course but I think it is important to note.

  2. I thought it was a decent movie.U can’t expect a Wes Anderson movie from everyone..coz there is one Wes,One Scorsese and One Tarantino.Everyone has a unique way of story telling.Yes,its not up there with the classics but definitely doesn’t deserve your expression”ugh”.

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