“Me and Earl and Dying Girl” is one of those superficially whimsical American independent films often shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and I constantly groaned and grumbled throughout its running time. Brandishing its deliberately quirky style and mood, the movie does impress us on the technical levels, but this is nothing more than a rote teenager drama comedy spiced with broad stereotypes, blatant self-conscious humor, and a heap of shallow references to numerous films to be recognized.
This may look cool to some of you, but I did not find anything cool about this as only finding myself annoyed by countless artificial aspects popping up here and there in the film. Because I will certainly bore you if I talk about all of them one by one in this review, so I am going to enumerate some of its most annoying or distracting things which ruined my viewing at last night, and it is all up to you to decide whether you still have interest in watching this obnoxious piece of work.
1) Your average self-absorbed teenager prick who does not give a damn about himself or others around him. The adolescent hero in question is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school kid who has been comfortable with his almost invisible position in his school. His only friend is a black kid named Earl (RJ Cyler), but he prefers to regard Earl as a ‘co-worker’ rather a friend. In the other words, he is one of those immature jerks who always distance themselves from others as if they were too cool to engage in any real life matters. In fact, he does not even care about which university he wants to go, and that certainly makes his parents quite worried, but then we already know he will go to some university, mainly because the opening scene shows him working on his essay for university enrollment application (and this is a very convenient storytelling device, you know).
2) Lots of movie references for further emphasizing its knowledgeable coolness. I mentioned above that Earl is Greg’s ‘co-worker’ instead of his friend, and they do work together for making their intentionally crappy short films which are cheap parodies of many famous movies they watched together. We see some of them including “A Sockwork Orange”, “The Turd Man”, “Blue Beer”, “My Dinner with Andre the Giant”, and “Apocalypse Wow”. They are a bit amusing at first along with several nice stop motion animation scenes, but their one-dimensional charm is quickly evaporated as we keep watching more of them. Especially in case of “Apocalypse Wow”, I want to point out that TV animation series “The Critic” made a better parody with the same title a long time ago.
3) Awkward use of film scores. If you were not so pleased about how Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo” (1958) was used during the climactic scene of “The Artist” (2011), you will be probably far more annoyed by how that great score is casually used during one scene which also features “Taxi Driver” (1976), which was incidentally Herrmann’s last film. Later in the story, David Shire’s acclaimed piano score for “The Conversation” (1974) is played on the soundtrack just because a) the movie has just made a reference to that great film and b) it can provide the deadpan background for a droning monologue by Greg’s sociologist father Mr. Gaines (Nick Offerman in his usual sullen comic mode), who was crucial in shaping his son’s movie taste. And can somebody please tell me why they used the orchestral version of Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” in “A Sockwork Orange” instead of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer version used in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)?
4) Thin characterization with no visible human quality. The movie constantly reminds us through its hero’s narration that it is not a conventional teenager movie, and it is relentless in emphasizing its offbeat aspects. Beside its constant stream of stylish shots to show us how it can play a lot with its camera in many different ways (I do not remember any single plain shot in the film), the movie is packed with cardboard characters as unrealistic as its production design filled with odd, colorful elements. Most of the school characters in the film are caricatures without any recognizable human traits, and I am still wondering how Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), an eccentric tattooed history teacher, is allowed to have a big, antique office full of old books. Maybe I should have suspended my disbelief during the viewing, but I still cannot believe the characters and the world they are supposed to inhabit. To be frank with you, I was surprised to learn that the school building in the film actually exists in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – and it was used for the shooting of the film although the school was closed in 2008.
5) Ali MacGraw syndrome. The dying girl destined to change our self-absorbed hero’s life is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is recently diagnosed to have leukemia. While Greg has not been that close to her, Greg’s parents have him spend more time with Rachel just for giving her emotional support. Greg and Rachel make it clear to each other that they do not like to spend time together, but, what do you know, they soon become closer to each other (if Rachel’s alcoholic mother Mrs. Kushner (Molly Shannon) were lustier, we would probably have a citation of “The Graduate” (1967) along with Simon & Garfunkel songs). Enjoying his short films, Rachel encourages Greg to pursue college education, and he becomes determined to make a special film for her before it is too late. Though Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke do have a nice chemistry between them and Cooke brings some gentle warmth into her character, Rachel is mostly defined by her illness, and she somehow maintains her fragile grace even during the expected tear-jerking scene at the hospital. Despite his vast knowledge of classic films, Greg never mentions why she is a classic case of Ali MacGraw syndrome or quotes that famous 1970 film which inspired it, and this is a shame considering so many other movies referenced in the film.
6) Token black friend character. Like Rachel, Earl is another walking cliché in the film. While he is supposed to be Greg’s only friend, what he mostly does in the movie is a) sitting around Greg for watching movies and b) looking *very* thoughtful in his reticent appearance. Of course, there comes a conflict between them later in the story, but how it is initiated and then resolved feels quite contrived, and I could not help but notice Earl’s glaring clichéd aspects including his ‘rough’ neighbourhood and his buffoonish brother played by Bobb’e J. Thompson, who grows up a lot since his scene-stealing supporting turn in “Role Models” (2008).
“Me and Earl and Dying Girl” is based on the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, who adapted his novel for the film. When it was shown at the festival early in this year, the movie received lots of positive responses besides the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, and I actually heard a lot of good words from many reviewers after it was released at US theaters in this June.
Considering its fairly solid technical aspects including the slick cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, I understand why some critics are very enthusiastic about the film, though I still cannot agree with them much. It is undeniable that the director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is a skillful filmmaker, and I was amused to some degrees by some of its movie references including Powell and Pressburger or Werner Herzog, but the movie fails to provide story and characters substantial enough to support its style and mood. With no particular care or interest in its story and character, I merely watched it with accumulating annoyance, while occasionally noticing its crew’s good efforts on the screen or being saddened to see its talented actors being wasted in their one-note roles. It is surely sweet and quirky, but it is also as pretentious as Sundance movies can be.
Oh, by the way, there is one more thing in the film I have not told you yet. At one point, Greg unwisely asks Mr. McCarthy about leukemia right in front of others, and I could see well that this contrived scene exists only for a) making Rachel’s illness known to everyone in the school and b) showing another example of what a jerk Greg is. My reason of disbelief is simple: why didn’t you just check Wikipedia, you idiot?