I am suspicious of my enjoyment of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in spite of the fact that the film, premiering at Sundance in 2015, received the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Drama, and I am not alone in such enjoyment. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a director until now primarily known for his TV work (Glee, American Horror Story) and based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews, the film follows Greg (Thomas Mann), the titular “Me,” who, under non-negotiable orders from his mother, befriends a high school classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is diagnosed with leukemia; Greg is to be a companion to her through the ordeals of her illness and treatment. And so Greg, with his childhood friend and fellow film-buff, Earl (RJ Cyler), entertain Rachel in large part with the films the two boys make together, short films that cleverly pun around with titles of classic and foreign cinema: The 400 Blows becomes a film about “The 400 Bros”; 8 ½ becomes “Ate ½ (of my Lunch)”; A Clockwork Orange becomes “A Sockwork Orange.”
It’s a film loaded with a particular brand of indie quirk that accomplishes almost nothing surprising or refreshingly new in terms of character or story, and I ought to have been annoyed by it all: annoyed by the set-up; annoyed by the cutesy title cards (“The Part Where I Meet the Dying Girl, “The Part that Comes after all the Other Parts”); by the ridiculous portrayal of a hipster tattooed high school history professor (who somehow has his own office and sports a Persian carpet in his classroom) and of a tenured sociology professor father (who, because tenured, apparently never has to work); by the manic pixie dream dying girl who functions to serve the protagonist’s emotional development; by the bordering on racist depictions of black characters (because Earl, his brother, and the limo driver are funny, it’s ok, I guess?); by the look-at-me-I-know-all-these-films film references. Terribly cute. Terribly clever. And maybe just plain terrible.
But somehow I enjoyed the thing. I don’t know. Maybe it hit me in a particularly expansive mood; maybe I was just so barraged with cute quirk that I caved; maybe there is some – albeit cheap – satisfaction in knowing and being able to laugh at those movie references, the title plays, the Werner Herzog impressions.
Or maybe there is some deeper layer to the film that pushes the quirk and clichés into something more interesting – we could, for example, read the film as within the construct of an unreliable or limited narrator, for Greg, a clearly rather self-absorbed, white, teenaged boy, is our guide through this world. As the title indicates, we’re getting his first-person perspective, and, in fact, he narrates much of the film. Thus, if the film’s world is fully filtered through his understanding, Rachel, Earl, his father, his teacher – everyone else – are much more than they seem to be. The ending scenes certainly suggest that Greg finally understands that he understands very little, both about himself and others.
But whatever it was, a forgiving mood in myself or an actual suggestion of depth in the film, I admit it. I had fun. And if frequent laughter and muffled sniffles around me in a theater are any indication, Bellingham’s Pickford crowd did, too.
In the end I’ll just say this: “Eyes Wide Butt” and “Pooping Tom.” If you can at least snigger at a poke in the ribs to Kubrick and Powell, you might have fun, too.
(Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays in Seattle at AMC Loews Oak Tree 6, SIFF Cinema Uptown, and Guild 45th Theater and in Bellingham at the Pickford Film Center July 6-July 9)