The biggest obstacle toward liking Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is, well, basically everything about it. From its title on, this Sundance award-winner comes draped in preciousness and ironic remove, like a teen practically begging you to steal his lunch money while rolling his eyes and making some withering comment under his breath. It costars Nick Offerman, but the Parks & Rec character it most channels is Aubrey Plaza’s sullen April Ludgate, who spends her life afraid that if she shows real feelings, everybody will know what a big heart she really has. Given that this is a movie about disaffected, quirky characters within a mannered, quirky story, the result mostly works, but only if you’re willing to meet it halfway. (Even then, though, it can be exasperating.) It’s designed to elicit shrugs, not raves: I ultimately liked it, even if there was plenty that drove me nuts.
The film stars Thomas Mann as Greg, the Me of the title. Narrating the movie, he recounts the seven months he spent befriending Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow high school senior who’s dying of leukemia. Greg is one of those kids who has constructed his life to be as affected as possible so as to protect himself from the emotions he fears. He and his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) love foreign movies, mostly because they’re “weird,” and make parodies of classic films like My Dinner With Andre—not because they want to make them good, but because they want them to be as dumb as possible. To make them good would require trying, and a guy like Greg doesn’t want to try: Trying means caring, and he’s flat-out terrified of coming across as someone with actual feelings.
Encouraged by his mom (Connie Britton) to visit Rachel after word gets out that she has leukemia, Greg reluctantly visits a woman he barely knows. Their friendship starts slowly—she’s too raw, and heartfelt isn’t his thing—but eventually they find their rhythm. As blasé as he likes to carry himself, Greg has a sweetness and directness that works on her: Because he’s not overly emotional, she feels less like a charity case or a victim, and she warms up to him, especially when she starts watching his atrocious parodies. He keeps insisting they’re terrible, but secretly wants someone to acknowledge them—you don’t go to the trouble of making 42 of them if some part of you doesn’t actually enjoy it—and Rachel seems safe enough. After all, she’s going to die soon.
Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the screenplay), Me and Earl has some superficial similarities to a Wes Anderson film: There are chapter titles, precise camera moves, whimsical interludes, a deadpan comic tone. But where Anderson has a tighter control on the balance between irony and heart, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon struggles, coddling his main character’s meant-to-be-adorable demeanor. Greg occasionally slips into imitating Werner Herzog’s laughably pretentious speaking style—complete with over-the-top German accent—because it’s another way to distance himself from the anxieties he feels. The film doesn’t do enough to call Greg on these defense mechanisms, which makes it seem like it’s endorsing his tiresome behavior. Still, if you can step away from the movie’s obvious cutesiness, there’s a lot of feeling and self-awareness here, especially when it comes to the movie’s critique of film worship.
Much of Me and Earl concerns Greg and Earl’s latest attempts at making parodies, and the film is littered with movie references—including key music cues from Vertigo, The 400 Blows and Ennio Morricone. Greg’s early love of film was instilled in him by an insufferably “bizarre” father (Offerman), who likes eating weird foreign food and sitting around in his bathrobe in a way that only happens in American indie movies. But the kid is too cool to outwardly declare his love for, say, Fitzcarraldo. Everything in Greg’s life is part of an elaborate hedging of bets, accumulating cultural totems that help build up his fort. (He’s the same way at school: He’s learned that if he’s decent-enough friends with every clique, he’ll never be ostracized. He won’t have any real friends, but, hey, at least he won’t feel like a loser.)
Me and Earl, then, is the process by which this navel-gazer finally starts caring about his life and tearing down that fort. If that’s a familiar arc, what Gomez-Rejon and Mann do well is show ambivalence toward this young man’s emotional growth, to question the selfishness by which people find their self-worth and, in the process, negate other people’s. You may notice I’ve hardly mentioned the Dying Girl of the title, and that’s part of the film’s problem and its strength. Intentionally, the story is focused on the character in the title with the least hardships: Earl’s family is less well-off and Rachel is dying, but self-centered Greg is the one calling the shots in the narrative. That opens up Me and Earl to criticism of being this year’s White People Problems award-winner, but this strategy is actually a feint, setting us up for the slow dawning that will befall this little twit.
I saw Me and Earl the first time at Sundance, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, and even then I wrestled with the movie’s self-satisfaction. But I’ve also been impressed both times with how Mann plays what is potentially (and often is) a pretty unlikeable character. Rachel, almost inexplicably, likes Greg, although theirs isn’t exactly a love story—Greg would have to like himself first before he could really allow anyone to love him. And Mann walks that line quite well, emphasizing Greg’s studied irony while constantly hinting at the self-loathing and tenderness that’s always in the margins. We have to take it a bit on faith for why Rachel loves the guy, but that’s part of what’s so moving about the film’s final stretches. Me and Earl is about a young man who doesn’t even know that he doesn’t deserve someone as great as Rachel—but he’s going to learn, the hard way.
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