Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

 4 / 5 

It's tempting to think of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as some cinematic lovechild of John Hughes and Wes Anderson, since it combines precociously self-aware high-schoolers with visual inventiveness, and sometimes feels very much like a movie that either Hughes or Anderson might have made.  But after indulging in some overt preciousness in its first 15 minutes or so, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl settles into its story, only occasionally lapsing into flights of whimsy and more frequently demonstrating a fine assurance and keen sensitivity.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is based on a young-adult novel and bears the hallmarks of a film intended to appeal to young fans of the book, but director Alfonse Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (he also wrote the novel, which I've never read) prove to be as canny students of film as their protagonists.  They are deliberate, careful, but not overly cautious, movie-makers, and the moment I knew that I wasn't simply enjoying Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but was falling into a sort of mild cinematic love with it came during a critical scene between "Me" and the "Dying Girl."

"Me" is Greg Gaines, a tall, gangly guy who's just, well, Greg.  He's not a nerd enough to be a nerd.  He's not a jock enough to be a jock.  He doesn't do drugs, so he can't be a stoner.  He's not rich, so he can't hang out with the rich kids.  There's nothing all that special about him, at least the way he sees it.

Greg does have one very specific set of skills, though he prefers no one to know about them -- no one, that is, except his "co-worker" Earl.  Thanks to the intellectual predilections of Greg's sociology-professor father (he's tenured, which means he doesn't need to go to class all that often), Greg and Earl have learned how to appreciate foreign-language auteur-driven films.  Names like Eisnstein, Marker, Kurosawa, Welles, Tartakovsky, Scorsese, Kubrick, Buñuel -- they all mean something to Greg and Earl.  Some kids learn about football at an impressionable age and want to become football players.  Others learn about science and astronomy and devote their lives to learning more.

For better or worse, Greg and Earl learned about films.  Not just movies, but films -- the blacker-and-whiter, the more foreign, the more obtuse and pained the better.

Like most high-schoolers, they begin to explore their own worth as artists not by creating but first by emulating.  They make movies like 2:48 PM Cowboy instead of Midnight Cowboy, Monorash instead of Rashomon, A Sockwork Orange instead of Kubrick's anti-violence screed.  They don't know why they do this, but they do.  Only Earl and Greg get to watch the final productions.  They're embarrassed by their own creativity.

As Rachel, the dying girl in the title, almost immediately picks up: Greg and Earl are not embarrassed.  They're scared.  Greg insists he's ugly with the face of a groundhog, even though everyone can see that he is handsome.  He is dead-set against going to college, because it will be just like the emotional minefield of high school without the safety net of friends you know.  He can't see himself succeeding in college.  He'd rather have a normal, you know, life.

Then he meets Rachel, a girl he has seen around the school.  Greg has seen everyone around the school, which he views as a survival tactic; if all the myriad social cliques know of him and at least tacitly approve of him, he can glide by on the sidelines -- never a stranger, but never quite a friend.

Greg's mother (Connie Britten) drops the news on him that Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia, and she wants Greg to befriend the girl he barely knows.  Neither one of them is entirely comfortable with the arrangement, but they try.  Gomez-Rejon inserts unnecessary quirkiness into many of the scenes, adding title cards that impart a mildly ironic deprecation to blunt the impact of emotion.

These touches are clever, but they begin to detract a little from the serious turns the story takes -- serious, yes, but rarely maudlin.  They're defense mechanisms, much like those Greg has developed: "Don't take me too seriously," they say, "even though I wish someone would take me seriously."  Wink-wink.

But that is the heart of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl -- that whether we're in high-school or decades removed, we are looking for those people who can see through the personas we've developed, who will recognize us despite the efforts we've made to get through life more or less invisible, the way Greg hopes to.  But none of us will emerge from high school, not to mention the rest of life, unscathed.

Thomas Mann as Greg, RJ Cyler as Earl and Olivia Cooke as Rachel all deliver fully realized characters.  We get to know Earl least, but it's clear he hopes the creative streak that he and Greg have developed can get him out of his depressed Pennsylvania town.  Greg's cloak of invisibility is pulled off of him when he meets Rachel, and for her part, she's neither as perfect or as stoic as others might hope her to be: She's 17 and she's dying.

It's long after their friendship has begun, long after chemotherapy sessions have started for the dying Rachel, that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl puts forth its bold play to make it clear that the makers of this film are actually filmmakers -- they know how to tell a story with a camera, and to do it well.

In one long scene, Greg comes to visit Rachel and she drops a bombshell on him, one that makes both of them rethink and redefine everything that has come before.  There were dozens, maybe more, ways to film the scene, but Gomez-Rejon takes a page directly from more classical, more accomplished filmmakers: He locks down the camera and lets the actors play the scene.  In the audience, our eyes dart back and forth from one character to the other as we listen to them, watch for reactions; the filmmakers trust their audience enough to let them decide how to mentally edit the scene.

The actors get to act -- and both Cooke and Mann have created unusually whole and memorable characters -- and the scene plays out in real time.  It's a daring and sophisticated move; today's editing styles should have dictated a number of cutaways to drive home the emotion of the scene, but Gomez-Rejon gives us nothing but the actors talking with each other.

It's a scene that changes Greg's entire view of both Rachel and of himself.  A more intrusive, active version of the scene might have been more commercially acceptable, but in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl it's perfectly placed, perfectly timed, trusting both the actors and the audience to have the ability to pay attention, to focus, and to be moved by the realizations that are taking place.

I had been enjoying Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, especially its slightly silly, mildly subversive way of viewing the world.  But in that long, quiet, careful scene, my enjoyment grew to adoration.  The rest of the movie didn't let me down.

It completes its story in ideal fashion, never going over the top, never succumbing to the modern temptation to hit home the story points with heavy camerawork or aggressive editing.   The characters remain true to themselves, the story completes itself in ways that are both inevitable and surprising.

What began as charming and adorable ends up thoughtful and significant -- much like the kids themselves will, with luck, become.  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is made by filmmakers who know what they're doing, and it shows.

It's a tender, big-hearted movie that knows that all you really end up remembering about high school are the people who were your friends, and that when you think about what became of some of them, you cry, because it's not fair that some people don't get to finish their lives.  And then you laugh because you remember the things you did with them, the way you were when you were around them, and you hope that as you move forward and get older, maybe you can be a little bit more like that person you used to be when you were young, even if high school pretty much sucked and there were some people who didn't make it out alive.

Viewed June 13, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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