Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a self loathing, high school senior who aims to be aquainted with every social clique without falling into any of them. He makes silly parody movies with Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who he’s known since kindgergarten yet refuses to admit is his friend because of his fear of closeness. It’s one of many quirks that’s written to make him seem more interesting even though no kid would actually have any reason to act like this towards someone he is so close with. Greg’s mum (Connie Britton) tells him that a fellow student Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia and coerces him to go and visit her, causing them to get close, whilst using his narration to make it very clear that this will pan out without movie romance tropes.
Greg’s narration makes it clear that this film is desperate to distance itself from the sentimentality of so much teens with cancer fiction, pointing its finger at it disparagingly. It’s incredibly patronising, especially as a lot of those other movies and novels that this film considers inferior actually have a lot more conviction and emotional resonance than this one. It constantly snarks smugly along the lines of “you probably think this is the bit where we share some deep romantic moment but let me tell you, this isn’t that kind of story”. Greg’s narration is irritating in itself, but worse still is the way it shows contempt for its audience. It’s saying “I want to be this kind of movie, I don’t want to be this kind of movie” but it doesn’t earn what it’s saying it wants to be. Whenever there’s a moment that is emotionally resonant, the voiceover interjects to tell you that you’d be a moron if you cry during this part, because this isn’t that kind of story, whatever that kind of story implies. It ridicules its audience for appreciating sentimentality and then that is exactly what it relies upon at the end. At every point it wants to have its cake and eat it, looking down at you smugly as it does so.
The film constantly plays with Greg’s struggle to treat the people in his life as more than just props. Yet if Greg (as the narrator) was saying one thing about his ambivalence towards other people whilst the film could show something more nuanced about the world around him, then that would be interesting. The film needs to be smarter than its narrator and show the disconnect between the reality of what Greg thinks about the world and how the world really is. The point of the film is for Greg to realise that the people in his life are more than just props but what we are shown is exactly that. They don’t have any agency beyond serving him and when the film finally reveals one character’s quirky, hidden interest it hits all the sentimental notes the film has spent two hours telling us that it is above. Unlike what the film might preach, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sentimentality unless you can see the strings, which are so apparent here.
At one point, Greg tells us an important plot point that will occur later in the movie, only for him to later tell us that this wasn’t actually true. It’s the way this story is told which makes the narrator so unlikable because if someone told you a story this way in real life you would be really upset with them. He is apparently a detached teen who tells us how awkward he is but he is also able to make a lot of positive, casual relationships with people which is just another really unlikable thing about this film and charatcer. How dare you have it both ways! If only being socially awkward made social encounters quite so easy!
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl constantly rips you out of any feeling that you might have that these are real people by inserting short segments of stop motion cuteness. It has a squirmy quirkiness and eccentricity, displayed largely through Greg and Earl’s hobby of making parody films, which quickly becomes very repetitive and never funny. I wasn’t a huge fan of Be Kind Rewind but at least that film gave the characters an energy and charisma that they seemed compelled to put into their filmmaking. Here, it is just a character quirk and doesn’t mean anything. Why are they remaking Criterion movies? Sure, it tells us that these characters are indie and cultured but it doesn’t feel like it comes from any inherent passion within these characters, which must exist for them to have made so many of these films over such a long period. It likes to keep telling you who this character is by making him do something or say something in his narration to seem interesting rather than developing a feeling of who he is through how he behaves. Earl is a particularly frustrating character as Greg’s minority sidekick. Even though the actor has some charisma, he’s painted so stereotypically as the black character living on the wrong side of town, with a run down home, an aggressive pitbull and he loves to talk about “titties” because that’s just part of his culture. The dying girl herself seems like little more than an after thought, dying for the sake of teaching Greg a life lesson so it doesn’t ruffle many feathers in terms of white male privilege. There’s also a grieving mother who seems to have the hots for teenage boys, a “comedy” trope which has really never been funny, let alone when she is so concerned about her sick daughter. Connie Britton and Nick Offerman are also grossly underused as Greg’s parents, a negligence that should be criminal.
To its credit, it has some redeeming qualities, such as how it shows a main character who began one way and you can see how he changes, no matter how annoyingly presented those changes have been. it does have some beautiful camerawork, particularly one long, important scene with the single camera in the corner almost forgotten and then it pans after several minutes of stillness. However, sometimes it does feels like they’re just doing an interesting shot because it looks cool rather than it being necessary which takes you out of the film even more.
Me and Earl is a film very difficult to like, looking down on other films with its air of superiority despite doing nothing original itself. It struts around as curious and indie and subversive, hiding its cynical, normcore soul.
Review by David Rank
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is out on 4th September in the UK. Rating 12A (UK). Running time 105 mins.