Sunday, June 28, 2015
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL review
There's a fine line between genuine sweetness and a sweetness that's more saccharine; "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" straddles that line so much to the point where it really works for some people, but not so much for others. And one can understand the argument for both sides, really. This movie came out to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the top prize, and you can kinda see why. The movie definitely has no shortness of charm; from the very beginning, it takes a very sardonic approach to the way it tells the story. Complete with captions like "This is the part where I start senior year of school" or "This is the part where I meet the dying girl." The movie has an overt self-awareness to it; it's very deliberate in its standoffish-ness because it's told strictly from the point of Greg (aka "Me"), who's a pretty standoffish guy.
And yet. At the same time. Here we go... one can completely understand people who wound up being turned off by this film. That element of sweetness and standoffish-ness comes off in a way where it sometimes feels like it can't be trusted. The movie's perspective on Greg is often muddled. He's a very self-obsessed teenager. The only reason why he starts hanging out with Rachel ("the dying girl") is because his mother forces him to. His best friend Earl ("Earl") is someone he's hung out with since they were in kindergarten, but he refers to the man as his co-worker. To the film's credit, Greg is often called out for his dickishness. Earl pokes fun at him for his fear of being rejected. Rachel, at first, does not buy Greg's attempts at friendship whatsoever. She's going through enough already, having been diagnosed with leukemia, she doesn't need a self-obsessed egomaniac hanging around her all the time.
Even at 105 minutes, which is a fairly reasonable running time, no matter how often Greg gets called out for being so egomaniacal or petty or dickish, there's still a point where it all gets to be a bit much. Simply put: of the three main characters here, Greg's story and point of view is the least interesting. It really is. That doesn't mean the movie's running time should be equally dispersed to give the proper amount of time to Greg, Earl, and Rachel. But at a certain point, as Rachel's sickness worsens and the movie becomes clear that this is about how it affects Greg more than anything else, it's difficult to spend time with someone who makes everything about himself regardless of how often the movie calls him out on it. It's an inherent flaw that the film can't avoid, as long as it continues to intensely be about Greg.
Thing is, though, I didn't come away from the film hating Greg. Like I said, it's just difficult to spend a long period of time with anyone like that. Greg is a 17 year old kid. He's self-obsessed. Almost every 17 year old kid, if you make a movie strictly about them, will start to feel insufferable. It just so happens that Greg is especially insufferable even though he initially comes across as charming (as does the film itself). At first, it's kinda funny how he views his friendship with Earl. He and Earl both have a deep interest in cinema, thanks to Greg's father (Nick Offerman).
The two would intensely watch films by Werner Herzog or "The 400 Blows" or several other classic foreign films. They loved them so much they began to create their own stupid versions of those films. (Like, "Pooping Tom" as opposed to "Peeping Tom"). The whole thing's really just meant to be a joke between the two, but once Greg starts showing the films to Rachel and word gets around, a classmate suggests that he should make one of his stupid films about Rachel to cheer her up. Greg never officially agrees to do it and subsequently becomes obsessed with/angered by the fact that he's being forced into it. And again, it's this self-obsession. Despite the fact that Rachel's condition keeps getting worse, with Greg, it's more and more about his frustrations with making this movie for Rachel. The more he starts losing sight about the bigger picture, the more he started to lose me. The more his friendship with Earl didn't seem that funny anymore. The more his initial charm started to become cloying.. And thus, there's where that sweetness/saccharine fine line started exposing itself to me.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" remains a uniquely made film. It has a very interesting visual approach and there's some unusual framing deployed that further brings home the point just how disconnected Greg feels with everybody. There's an excess amount of headroom when you're walking down the hallways with Greg. Close-ups where Rachel or Greg will fill in the last third of the frame, instead of the first third. I really responded to the style of the film... once again, at first. But no amount of style, whether it's the brief moments of animation or the Annie Hall-esque "scene that should've happened/scene that actually happened" play on formality, all of these things start to matter less when you're stuck in a movie where the lead character becomes more difficult to identify with.
Greg never needs to be likable. No character needs to be likable. But there are just too many elements to the story where I just started to lose my patience with Greg. It's funny because the movie may actually be one of the more realistic depictions of teenagers (or, well at least suburban white teenagers) in that it really nails down just how self-obsessed they can really be. Still, that doesn't make the movie any more fun to watch. Because he is the way he is, it makes Rachel's story feel more shallow. I ultimately didn't feel anything about her inevitable plight. There's a message in this film, "even when someone dies, there's still so much you can discover about the person," which at first seems like a nice sentiment, but Greg's realization of the message just made me want to strangle him. Because that's when I realized how little he attempted to know Rachel despite the 100+ days he spent with her. By the time he begins to realize just who she really is, the movie treats this as a big character moment for him.
And maybe he has become a better person after all is said and done. Maybe he's grown up and matured and will find a way to navigate college with a smile on his face. Maybe I'd watch a movie about the Greg that's learned not to be so self-centered. But, man, I can't say I enjoyed watching the process of him "growing up," especially when Earl and the "Dying Girl" are essentially tossed aside in the process. Yes, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" straddles that sweetness/saccharine line pretty intensely. Where does it ultimately lie? Well, it may have started to go down rather smooth, but by the end, I wished I had some mouthwash.