Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

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Only recently did Me and Earl and the Dying Girl become one of my comfort movies.  That doesn’t mean it’s good, in fact I’m not sure how I feel about this movie anymore, but I can’t deny that I get something out of it whenever I watch it, which has only been twice so far.

I recently read and attempted to analyze the screenplay to this movie, and I wrote a bit about a few reservations one might have towards a story of this nature (in which another character’s fatal illness is used only to comment on the white male protagonist’s character arc).  I’ll touch on some of that here, because it’s central to how I feel watching this movie.

I want to love this movie, and I do love parts of it.  I identify with aspects of main character Greg (Thomas Mann), but most of those characteristics come from a place of privilege.  Greg is both alluring and maddening.  He’s driven and creative but also self-loathing.  He holds himself back to an almost comical degree, so afraid of intimacy that he calls his best friend a “coworker.”

Greg is witty and quick to joke in the face of overwhelming darkness, but his shtick starts to wear thin pretty quickly.  He’s a character who needs to grow up and does, but he’s also such a broad figure that he feels like some kind of comic persona.  The way he comes off feels like a dramatization of what it feels like to be in high school, and that might help explain that starkly different tones within the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl bounces between whimsical and deadly serious.  The cathartic climax worked on me when I first saw it (mostly because of Brian Eno’s The Big Ship, the same instrumental track used at the close of The End of the Tour), though it had less effect this time around as I specifically tried to break down the film’s individual components, turning what might be a painting into a math problem.

Half of the film is some kind of comedy, and a good one at that, but the broad, almost slapstick story hurts the attempted sincerity of the latter half of the film.  The world of Greg’s high school is something like the ecosystem of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, but the heart of the film, the relationship between Greg and “Dying Girl” Rachel (Olivia Cooke) goes for some kind of truth.

You get the sense that writer Jesse Andrews lived through an experience like the one shared with Rachel but that he borrowed the high school stereotypes from a host of 80s teenaged comedies playing every afternoon on TBS.

So there’s two stories here that I still enjoyed.  I didn’t mind that the characters outside of the titular three (including Earl, played by RJ Cyler) were so broad because I didn’t have time to care for them.  And isn’t that what high school feels like anyways?  You have your close group of friends, but outside of that all your classmates are somewhere between human and absurd myth?  You recall that Pete was the guy you had second period with spring semester of Sophomore year and he may have totaled his father’s BMW.  But you don’t know for sure.

That’s why you have characters like Scott Mayhew, Ill Phill and even Madison.  They don’t feel real, but we’re seeing this all through Greg’s eyes.  These are who they are to him.

The relationship between Greg and Rachel is much different.  It’s earnest, and I found it genuine.  Still, the point of the relationship is to make Greg a better person.  Rachel pushes and shapes him so that by the end of this coming of age story he is ready to take on the world.

But what of Rachel?  She dies, which you know by the title and which the film never really denies even despite Greg’s thin assurances that she might make it out alright.

What is Rachel’s arc?  Is it to come to terms with everything as it is?  We never really see that happen, and we are given no reason to believe she came to any such realization.  And what even of Rachel’s mom?  She is portrayed as a soon to be alcoholic, driven to drinking by her daughter’s illness.  In a tragic moment Rachel tells Greg that she worries for her mom because when she’s gone her mom will have no one.

There is real tragedy here, and the most tragic figures receive no closure.  Instead Greg gets it all.  When he’s sad we see Rachel’s mother comfort him.  Even Rachel herself (through a posthumous letter) comforts Greg.

So Greg needs their empathy, but he’s not the character who really deserves to feel the weight of all of this.  If Greg had any of his own empathy, he would go out of his way to help others.

Greg is a taker.  He takes from everyone around him and gives little.  There is one moment in the film in which Rachel points out that anything Greg has done for other people (including hanging out with her) was something he was forced to do.  Still, this moment isn’t enough, and I think the story lets him off the hook, siding with his sadness rather than holding him accountable.

Maybe what I find so appealing about this movie is the degree to which Greg gives in to all his worst attributes.  He releases, lets go and sinks.  It might be the same impulse you get to cancel a plan you were never really that invested in.  You just sit on your couch and watch a movie or spend the night away scrolling through some mobile website which requires little thinking and expects nothing of you in return.

These are “me” moments, I guess.  We all have them, and it helps to think selfishly at times, at least in moderation.  You need to recuperate and gather yourself for whatever the heck comes next.

Greg is all of these “me” moments rolled into one.  He’s a character who clings to his nest and routine.  He resists any challenge to move out of his comfort zone, as demonstrated by his coping mechanism when he goes into a “subhuman state.”  He complains and then suggests he’s only passively resisting, you know, like Gandhi.

Though there’s a little Greg in all of us, he still does suck, and I wish the film held him more accountable.

I haven’t spoken much about the plot, but it really only concerns Greg’s senior year as he befriends Rachel and spends time with his best bud, Earl.  We leap through time with title cards announcing where Greg is in life and what’s about to happen.  The tone suggests the point of view of someone reflecting on the story with some objective distance, kind of like in Stand By Me, but the film still feels everything Greg feels.

At times we’re meant to look at Greg from a distance, and in other moments we are deeply entrenched in his mind.

Greg has a weird way of viewing things, and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures this well.  The film has its own sense of style and rhythm, much like a Wes Anderson film with its carefully staged blocking and lateral camera movements.

To emphasize the distance Greg insists upon between him and other people, the framing often shows characters far apart within the frame.

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The film’s direction is really kind of fantastic, and I think it captures everything the story sets out to do.  My problem with the film has more to do with the trope-ness of Rachel’s character and the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in general.  Though she doesn’t follow into all of the categories of such a character (made popular in Zach Braff’s Garden State), Rachel exists in relation to Greg.  She’s like a Westworld robot that powers down when he leaves the room and is there only for his benefit.

Rachel, like the female character in Paper Towns and 13 Reasons Why and even in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is there to be studied, to be scrutinized and therefore to be there for the male character.

I’m repeating myself now, but Rachel is such a fascinating, tragic character that the film doesn’t do enough with.  She’s barely in the final act of the film as Greg pushes her away with his infantile temper.  This is a film about their relationship, but it’s about everything he gets from their relationship.

Yet I fell for this film when I first saw it.  I think all my problems with the story’s construction concerns my own distaste for my affection for something that I know is problematic.  There’s a lot of “my” in that last sentence.  I suppose I’m revealing my inner Greg.

Up Next: Devil (2010), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), First Reformed (2017)

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