dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Sometimes you just can’t catch a break.
If this never got the attention it required, if not that many people saw it who otherwise would have been the prime audience for it, then it’s a shame, but it all comes down to timing.
If the flick had been released before Fault in Our Stars, not a soul would have thought it was trying to cash in on some perceived teens-dying-of-cancer upsurge in audience interest. Released this year? Then it just looks like it’s jumping on a sickly bandwagon and riding some dubious coattails.
It’s a real shame, because the movies are nothing alike, and are both based on completely different books, and were being developed completely independently of each other.
I enjoyed Fault in Our Stars well enough, despite seeing how mawkishly sentimental it was, and how godawfully manipulative. It had good core performances (by Shaleen Woodley and the actors playing her parents at least), and a decent script especially as it related to the arsehole author Hazel worshipped and then loathed (played by Willem Dafoe). Nice soundtrack, too. It was always aimed at and intended for a non-discriminating mass audience, which it got in spades.
Although maybe I’m over-thinking it. Maybe putting “Dying Girl” in your film’s title isn’t going to have patrons kicking down the theatre’s doors to get in and see it
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is less about cancer and about teens with cancer than it is about the awkward and difficult jerk at the centre of the flick (the ‘me’ of the title, being Greg, played by Thomas Mann), and his exhausting, infuriating late adolescence. He tries to skate over the surface of his high school’s social dynamics in an invariably complicated and anxious way, all with the intention of having no connections that could ever cause him pain.
His fear of rejection is so strong that he can’t even refer to or think of his best and only friend Earl (RJ Cyler) as a friend: he always, even in voiceover/in his head, refers to him as his co-worker, and introduces him to other people as such. Which is weird, since they don’t have jobs.
They are linked by an obsessive, joyous and incredibly nerdy fixation on film. And not just Terminator or Transformers or Fast & the Furious movies, but with the classics, the avant garde, the legends of the Criterion Collection. There are Truffaut posters and Werner Herzog references all over the place. They even show footage of Klaus Kinski screaming abuse at Herzog (from the doco Burden of Dreams), and complaining about how annoying it is to have to wait around between takes.
Then they have the obligatory (for this film) rendition of someone imitating Herzog and making various pronouncements of existential despair denoting his abject pessimism with the human condition.
It’s hilarious, if you’re in the right mood.
It’s very risky, though. Being so nerdy, so cinephilic is a tremendous risk because you’re going to alienate the (probably large) section of the potential audience who aren’t going to get the references or care, because someone somewhere said to them, “Well, if you liked Fault in Our Stars, then you might like…”
It’s dangerous because it means the movie runs the risk of seeming horribly pretentious. I mean, of course it’s pretentious, but you need to ease people into it, or give them a good reason to accept this kind of hipster window-dressing, because otherwise they’re going to sigh and think: “If I wanted to watch those classic flicks, maybe I should have gone and watched them instead, in fact I think I will!”
I am a sucker for this kind of crap, though, so it’s like catnip for me. I realise, however, that something so narrowly focussed that appeals greatly to me doesn’t necessarily mean that the flick works or that it has any kind of appeal to a broader audience.
Surely, it’s even more twee and arch than I’ve yet described. There are these 90 degree whip pans lifted so reminiscent of Wes Anderson films that you occasionally think maybe it is a Wes Anderson film despite knowing it’s not. Greg’s parents are such parodies of leftie academics they practically embody mechanical stereotypes (despite being well-acted by Nick Offerman and Connie Britton). Earl and his brother are so
Nothing feels real, and kind of like an elaborate pantomime, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine performances here. Thomas Mann as the lead is genuine. Genuinely annoying, but in a way I can not only appreciate but relate to. It’s going to be painful for me to admit this, but whenever I see films like this or Perks of Being a Wallflower, about teenage loners and defectives, intelligent and sensitive, just waiting for people to notice them and bring them into the light, as much as I roll my eyes at them, they slay me.
I didn’t have the deep, emotional catharsis from this that I had from Perks, because this is a very different film about very different characters. The Dying Girl of the title is just a regular girl (Olivia Cooke) who’s not particularly special, at least no more special than anyone else, and she has leukaemia.
Greg doesn’t even know her, but then he doesn’t really know anyone. His mother nags him into befriending her, which he does very begrudgingly.
He has very little to offer her, it seems, and it’s debatable whether she has anything to offer him. He has no romantic interest in her, and vice versa, and categorises her as being in the “Boring Jewish Girl” sub-group, which is just another one of the groupings he puts people comfortably into so he doesn’t have to think about or interact with them.
Do they have anything in common? Probably not, but his supreme virtue to her, as their friendship develops as they spend time together, is that he’s not going to say the same clichés about her illness, or about how “she can do it!” whatever “it” means, or how everyone’s “thinking” of her, as if that’s going to kill her cancerous cells.
When Rachel finds out about the movie homages / parodies Greg and Earl spend their time making, she demands that they let her see them, which she does in between sessions of chemotherapy. She doesn’t seem to find them that funny, though she does watch them with a rapt expression.
If there was the implication that there should be a romantic element to their relationship, it’s dispelled by this odd animation that occurs whenever a particular different girl has any contact with Greg. Whenever Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) chats to him or touches his shoulder, we see this stop-motion animation of a deer stomping repeatedly on a hamster. Presumably he is the hamster. Safe to assume.
That girl, who is meant to be Rachel’s friend, though we never see her with Rachel (so I think it’s a total lie), manipulates Greg into making a film to “cheer” Rachel up, and it ends up being a sad procession of teenagers saying the same dull bromides, since they’ve got nothing else to say.
I don’t think the flick is mocking them for that. A nastier flick would have done something like that. People, especially kids, don’t know what to do in the face of death. Fault in Our Stars makes the protagonists hyper-articulate and wise beyond their years in order to have them do and say things to entertain us with before they die, but the rest of us are left with this profound lack of meaningful things to say. The reason is that once you’ve said even the most touching and meaningful thing to someone who’s dying, or their loved ones, you’re left with whatever comes after. It’s all well and good for the string section to swell up and tears to burst forth from our eyes, but then what?
Greg never says the right thing for any situation, but that’s okay. Rachel needs someone awkward and honest around, perhaps. It seems to be what both of them need.
Because it’s not a romance, but about a friendship, it feels like the stakes are lower and that the story is probably leaving a lot of the stuff we’re meant to take away from the experience unsaid (though it’s no less impactful at the end to see Greg not dealing with, and then experiencing his grief). It’s not constantly telling us how to feel (until the very end, I guess, where it’s unavoidable). There’s a broader arch that’s less about the “girl” than it is about Greg’s fear of life, and his indecision about what to do with it, which she keeps pushing towards despite what she’s going through.
I think the ending is particularly strong in the way that it adheres both to a lack of sentimentality consistent with the way the rest of the film has played out, true to the characters and their stories, and true to its greater vision of people being more complicated and living more elaborate lives than we generally have the time to figure out when they’re around. It also, in keeping with its cinema history / film as art or even experimental art, the last film Rachel gets to watch, the last one Greg makes potentially, is not a homage or reference to other films: it’s meant to be his own thing, and it works.
It’s a pretty strong film, though not always an enjoyable one. The characters are broadly drawn but elusively unique, and nothing is underlined or over-explained. I particularly loved the scenes in Rachel’s room at the end, which I won’t spoil, that reveal a new element to the character, one which is consistent with what we’ve ehard previously but not understood, and again with a personal artistic expression that speaks more volumes than dialogue would have.
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is the feel-good hit of the summer – in some distant alternate dimension.
8 times dying never seemed so miserable out of 10
“We make films. We've been making them since we were little” – keep on keeping on – Me, Earl and the Dying Girl