Watching Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, I sort of came to realise how vampires in movies and literature have always felt when they come upon a mirror or reflective surface.
The film charts a year or so in the life of teenage Greg (Thomas Mann), a narcissistic self-hating clique-skirting amateur filmmaker whose main character trait is not-getting-invested-in-things.
He’s so, like, whatever, dude. Word.
Played with a prescribed aloofness which simply comes off as though Mann was just bored on set, Greg is one of those whining narrators that chirpy indie cinema throws at us from time to time; the ones that are supposed to be endearing, but just remind us, if anything, of the worst tendencies in ourselves. Anyway, his mother (played by Connie Britton) all but forces him to spend time with a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who has been diagnosed with leukemia.
Yeah, you can see where this is going, right?
Sulking his way into a ‘cute’, ‘unlikely’ friendship, Greg sees the end of school approaching, but with no real interest in what happens when it’s over. Along with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) – a friendship which is poorly established and largely without chemistry – Greg has a hobby of making rather charming film parodies, mixing live action and stop-animation. And they’re actually pretty good. Yet because of his lack of self-belief he doesn’t for a second consider funneling this talent into any form of future. Rachel has to press him into seriously considering where his life might be going while she soberingly reminds him, and us, that hers is going nowhere because she’s going to die.
Greg crushes mildly on a pretty girl named Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) who is perfectly nice to him throughout the story, sometimes inexplicably so given his behaviour, as he treats her from the beginning like some horrendous affliction he’s doomed to endure. Madison urges Greg to make a special film as a gift for Rachel. Greg doesn’t want to do this either.
And there you kind of have it. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. A film which so brazenly wants to be This Year’s Juno or This Year’s The Fault In Our Stars that it sets off all the right bottle rockets but packs none of the right punch. It’s a strangely inert experience, like the sparkling soft drink you order in a restaurant that arrives sad and flat. Somehow Greg’s post-anything blasé attitude has infected the entire picture. There are plenty of things to care about in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. The problem is they don’t resonate in the slightest. The dying girl doesn’t cause tears to well. The gift card sentiments don’t tug at the heart-strings. Watching the film made me feel like one of those vampires I mentioned; I looked into it and nothing came back to me.
Partly this is down to how shrewdly the material has been arranged to coin-in on the ‘quirky indie dramedy’ by its director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. He clutters the picture with irksome chapter subtitles that read like the names of Friends episode, announcing the next portion of the plot before it’s happened. Then there’s the jarring camera work that’s seemingly supposed to make you think it’s daring and original, but instead makes you wish he’d pipe-down and get real with us for a moment. Put simply, the film looks a mess. On top of this – and this should really have been fun for me – is a near-constant stream of cinephile references paraded before the viewer. Did Werner Herzog fund this film? He ought to get a cut. While music cues from Sergio Leone’s Dollars films appear frequently and without context. Now, Gomez-Rejon isn’t the first filmmaker to plunder cinema’s own toy box like this (cough, Tarantino, cough), but his presentation lacks any sense of sophistication, context or even purpose to get away with it. It comes off as name-dropping for the sake of it. All watching Me And Earl And The Dying Girl managed to do with its hundred-and-one reference points is make me feel like there were a hundred-and-one better films I could’ve been watching.
The young actors are all fine separately, but together they don’t seem to gel, much like most of the elements in play here. Cooke is given absolutely nothing to do except be the girl who has leukemia, making her less of a person and more of a narrative time bomb sat dourly in the picture read to detonate the third act. Cyler may have the best game of the younger crew here, but like anyone who isn’t Mann’s Greg, his fate is totally irrelevant. This is probably the film’s biggest flaw; Greg is it’s only concern. All secondary characters are left to twist in the wind so long as the film can deliver its emotional punches come the end; punches which are delivered as cruel southpaws after some risible narrative subterfuge. What’s intended to feel like a twist instead feels like a cheap stunt. A last-ditch effort to get us to feel something harder.
Yet – and this is important because I feel I’ve been a little harsh – the film isn’t a total disaster. It chips along fairly pleasantly and has it’s share of witticisms and observations about teenage life. Even if none of these are original or revelatory, they’re mostly handled breezily. Nick Offerman is somewhat appealing as Greg’s stoner dad with a decidedly hipster approach to cuisine, while elsewhere Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mother as though she’s determined that she’s in a much better film. Gomez-Rejon also manages to come up with one rather lovely montage as he scrambles for something else to shake up the visual framework; a montage in which Greg repeatedly enters Rachel’s room on different days, which is one of the film’s rare genuine moments of fresh-feeling nostalgic connection. A great reminder of endless summers repeatedly doing the same old shit and never getting bored with it. Similarly toward it’s end the film features a rather charming detective sequence for Greg in the very same room, one which displays some of the best book defacing cinema has to offer. Too bad that this ends, like most things in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, without quite managing to fulfill its full potential.
Hell, the film is Greg; obsessed with itself, pretending that nothing really matters, flitting from one activity to the next without managing to secure any attachments. But if Greg’s problem is a thinly veiled layer of denial covering a frightened, mixed-up interior, then Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is so successful at building up it’s walls that there’s little incentive to tear them down and find the soul behind them. I don’t think it’s really there to find. No doubt people are going to lap this sucker up and call it wise and moving and funny and true to life. But it isn’t really any of those things. It just pretends to be.