With the release of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it has become official: Teen weepers have become self-aware. Took them long enough, too. This movie and last summer’s The Fault in Our Stars are about teenagers dealing with tragedy, like quite a few others. The difference is that the characters in these movies have seen those other movies about dying teens and think that they suck. As a result, they’re determined to deal with loss by using deflating humor instead of Nicholas Sparks-style earnestness. I think those other movies suck, too, so I’m welcoming this development. As for the movie itself, which expands into Tarrant County this week, I’m a bit more mixed in my feelings.
The “me” in the title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a wearisomely self-deprecating Pittsburgh kid who’s determined to skate by in high school by keeping on cordial terms with every clique without ever firmly belonging to one. His only real friend is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler), an inner-city African-American kid who hangs out at his house because his own home is inhospitable and who shares Greg’s fascination with bizarre films like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Greg’s plan to go unnoticed goes swimmingly until his classmate Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia, and his mom practically forces Greg to befriend this girl whom he barely knows. With Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon) dealing with the situation by mixing lots of cocktails, Greg becomes her most reliable source of support.
Screenwriter Jesse Andrews adapted this film from his own novel, and he’s fond of having Greg puncture the conventions of tearjerkers: “So if this was a touching romantic story, our eyes would meet, and a feeling I’ve never had before would wash over me, and suddenly [Rachel and I] would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.” Andrews pens a nice monologue that’s not in his book for the school’s tattooed, muscular history teacher (Jon Bernthal) that imparts a bit of wisdom to Greg. However, the writer’s greatest contribution is the jaded tone of the piece that reflects a teenager’s outlook on life — when you’re in high school, everybody sucks, even you. (Especially you.)
Reading the book, you can easily see why it would be easy to turn into a movie. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon intercuts the action with claymation gags, and when Greg makes a reference to Pussy Riot, a balaclava-wearing girl playing a harp materializes in his bedroom. At one point, Greg gets a pep talk from a Wolverine poster on Rachel’s wall (voiced by Hugh Jackman). Most of all, the director has great fun staging the homemade movie spoofs that Greg and Earl make together, which have titles like The 400 Bros and My Dinner With Andre the Giant. I’m a particular fan of A Sockwork Orange, a patch on Stanley Kubrick that’s made with sock puppets.
All these tricks smack of a neophyte director who’s showing off, but Gomez-Rejon also knows when to dispense with them, as in a late scene when Rachel tells Greg that she’s stopping her treatment and Greg handles it about as badly as possible. It’s all done in a single take, with a shaven-headed Rachel looking miserable in the foreground while Greg rants behind her in the background, and it brings home how selfish he’s being.
Unfortunately, the changes Andrews has made to his book have also brought the movie closer to the exact sort of tearjerking films that Greg despises. The hottest girl in school (Katherine C. Hughes) ropes Greg and Earl into making a movie for Rachel that she can see, and while this development is given a refreshing twist in the novel, here it leads to a prettified conclusion. The scene with Earl snapping at Greg for acting like a dick while Rachel is dying feels like it was crowbarred into the proceedings. Late in the film, Greg goes into Rachel’s bedroom and discovers what she’s been doing to pass her confinement, and while it’s lovely to look at, it makes her uncomfortably close to the wise, beautiful creature that Greg slams Hollywood movies for depicting dying people as. All this conspires to turn Me and Earl and the Dying Girl into a movie that’s not as groundbreaking as it wants to be, though its commitment to taking a funnier, more grounded approach to its story points the way for a truly powerful film of its kind to take.
[box_info]Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, and Olivia Cooke. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Written by Jesse Andrews, based on his own novel. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]