Independent Film Festival Boston 2015 – Day 8: ‘Me And Earl And The Dying Girl’

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As the 13th Annual Independent Film Festival Boston drew to a close on Wednesday, a wave of melancholy seemed to hit every viewer eagerly waiting for the closing night film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in a sold out theater at Coolidge Corner Theater.

Brian Tamm, the fest’s Executive Director, took the stage for the last time. He humbly thanked all of the people that attended this year’s fest before a rousing fit of applause was dedicated to Nancy Campbell, the fest’s Program Director, for her immaculate work in curating this year’s film events. Before the film began, a fellow film critic shelled out some dollars and laid them at Tamm’s feet as a sign of support for the fest. The crowd laughed, but the message that Tamm had been sending to every audience member before almost every movie was clear: the fest would be nowhere without its donors. This is why I encourage you to go to the official website to donate today!

Anyway, I think it’s high time we talk about the film that won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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We can all agree that growing up as a teenager kind of really sucks, right? There’s the hormones, the crushes, the crushing weight of the curriculum, and the overbearing parents that intrude on your life at every juncture. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the culmination of these angers brought on by things like puberty. Instead of reveling in lived-in and endearing moments about how experiences shape our lives, this Sundance favorite lays on the tedious framework it inhabits even more than the faux-cinefilia that is there to make us believe in the main players, not squirm at the sight of them. ‘Misses the mark’ is probably the nicest thing someone could say about this amalgam of young adult novel tropes that is so pleased with its quirkiness that it could be mistaken for the overbearing friend who tells you how to feel about something instead of experiencing it for yourself.

Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is the kind of kid in high school everyone likes, but no one really knows. He wades through the factions and cliques in school with tact and hangs with his history teacher (Jon Bernthal) during lunch hour. Greg and his friend Earl love making parodies of classic films; it’s what keeps their wit and friendship intact. After Greg is forced to hang out with Rachel, a girl who just got diagnosed with leukemia, he develops a strong bond with Rachel that he didn’t expect. This is the story about how a self-centered teenager stayed self-centered despite it all.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon takes himself for a David O. Russell-type director. He takes every scene like a clean slate, always moving the camera in some dynamic fashion that would set the scene apart from every other movie about teenagers. The catch here is that most of the visual flourishes are tedious. In one scene, we see Greg and Earl walking down the street. The camera flips 180 degrees, now showing the duo walking upside down to their destination. Rejon implements the same kind of ADHD with shots in every scene, seemingly unable to hold a shot for more than four seconds. That is until we get to the most tried and true emotional confrontation between Greg and Rachel. There, he posits Rachel in the background while Greg acts insensitive in the foreground in a semi-long take. For once, Rejon slows down onto a emotionally manipulative moment. Instead of landing, it hearkens back to the previous half of a movie where not even the least active of characters could sit in stasis.

That isn’t to discount the performances here. Thomas Mann is somewhat charming as Greg. We are just inundated with his point of view to the point where the viewer may be begging for Rachel’s outlook on something. Greg says people like Werner Herzog inspire him, but he just ends up making lowbrow, lowest common denominator parodies of cinema’s greats. Aspiring filmmakers with real love for cinema have that love leak through the celluloid. Greg does not. Olivia Cooke does the best with the material she is given as Rachel. More than anything, she’s a plot device for Greg to play his emotions off of (not that he has a lot). For a role seemingly built as the emotional core of the film, Rachel seems like a footnote in Greg’s close-minded oeuvre.

Earl is even worse. RJ Cyler is forced to wade through grunt-worthy line recitations all ripped from an African American stereotype squashed in most films years ago. His obsession with “titties” and “ass” are there for comedic relief, but feel grossly miscalculated. His view on cinema, since he’s Greg’s partner in crime, isn’t even assessed.

Stop-motion animation and Greg and Earl’s parodies interrupt the narrative at varied moments. In the beginning, you may laugh at the juvenile titles they have concocted like “A Sockwork Orange.” By the end, you are hoping and wishing for something that may resonate with an audience. That moment comes, but is only hits as hard as it does because of Brian Eno’s tugging-at-the-heartstrings kind of score.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is very nearly one of the hardest times to sit through a film about vapid teenagers. Its saving graces come in the form of people selling the material, not the material itself. The power of performance can only help so much before [camera flips 180 degrees].

GRADE: D

A Q&A with Jesse Andrews followed the screening. Amidst questions about his future work, Andrews spoke about his really positive experience working with Rejon and his eagerness to work on films in the future. He also had no cast in mind when writing the novel, the work the film is based upon, unsurprisingly.

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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