If “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns” have taught me anything, it is not to sneer at young adult fiction. There is some genuinely sappy and seemingly toe-curling stuff written every day and it is indeed eaten up by teenage girls. Though if John Greene’s novel adaptations are anything to go by, maybe that is a fault on the boys.
“Me and Earl and Dying Girl” is the latest cinematic endeavour from the generation of young adult novelists this time being based upon Jesse Andrew’s book of the same name. Greg (Thomas Mann) is a teen that is well versed in self-loathing to the extent that he feels betrayed when people call him handsome and refuses to refer to his “friend” Earl (RJ Cyler) as such, instead calling him his co-worker. As a teenager, Greg is accustomed to wasting away his days inside and not really making all that much of himself, until his mother (Connie Britton) tells him that a girl — whom he seems to be vaguely aware of — has cancer.
This is where you moan. Even whilst waiting for the film to start, I saw a trailer for another film about a woman dealing with cancer (Missing You Already) that looks rather sickly but it is too early to judge. Of course we have already had the aforementioned “Fault in Our Stars” as well as “My Sister’s Keeper” and countless other movies about people who have to deal with cancer. I suppose it is a cinematic disease, allowing people to appear physically well at first and just causing them to become more gaunt as the story goes on. Visually, the disease is usually fairly unobtrusive to the general appearance of a person despite slowly making them look like drawn out versions of themselves, which works very well on screen if handled well.
What director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon wants you to believe, which is literally told to you via Greg’s omniscient narration (the film begins with him writing the story of what we are seeing having already experienced the events), is that this film is not like those other movies. We are even told what would happen if it were just another one of those teenage love stories, and then shown what will happen because this is not one of those. This is done well as the relationship between the titular Dying Girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and Greg blossoms in a fairly believable fashion and never comes close to love. These two people are just not meant to be and we feel that alongside the feeling that they are fairly good friends when they have been forced to be together.
There is a certain level of breaking the ice to their exchanges, and the film handles her feelings with tact. She isn’t always sad, but she isn’t always happy. Sometimes she laughs, sometimes she’s silent. It gets closer to the actual feelings I imagine someone dying would have which is great to see along with the actual feelings of someone like Greg who counts the days of the relationship he has dubbed the “Doomed Friendship”.
The problem with the film comes from overt attempt to be different to the point of being obtuse. People have commented on the fact that the film feels as if it was directed by Wes Anderson, whereas I would say it feels like it was directed by a pale imitator of Anderson’s work. Gomez-Rejon will often use unconventionally close close-ups, turn the camera on its side in ways that feel arbitrary and meaningless and often interrupts the live-action narrative with a stop-motion metaphor. We are so used to the way films are, their formulas and how they look, without even knowing it. So when something like this comes along and offers to switch all this up for us it can feel quite uncomfortable.
Wes Anderson was born for it and he manages to make it work even when his films might not be that great, the visuals are never the problem. “Me and Earl and the Dying girl” was constantly reminding me that it was a movie and we were watching from behind a camera. Very rarely was there a scene where I didn’t feel like the camera itself was a barrier to the experience instead of a supplement. Yes Alfonso, you can turn your camera upside down, but that doesn’t mean you should.
In many respects the plot feels quite meandering as well especially in the first half of the film. When we are told extensively about Earl and Greg’s history together and how they make movies based upon classic foreign cinema where they turn the name into a pun of the original — “A Sockwork Orange” and “Senior Citizen Kane” come to mind — we are shown a portion of the film that distracts from the plot in order to show us these films and get some cheap laughs out of the audience. When I was creating a group presentation at school, I was told never to create humour out of in jokes. In most films, references are cheaply but effectively layered in and don’t distract from anything. Gomez-Rejon however seems so impressed with his little jokes (where the book may have merely named the films he has the opportunity to show segments of them) that he takes the film to one side so we can all laugh at the references from movies we have all seen right? I got all the references and still found them on their own witty but contrived in their implementation. I can’t imagine how you’ll feel when minutes of the story are given to references you don’t even understand.
The final 15 minutes or so of the film are definitely the strongest, though one particular thing Greg often mentioned did feel like an extremely cheap tactic and unfortunately I’m tittering around the subject to avoid spoilers, but the rest of the film falls into the passable distraction category. An uneven experience, much like the title itself, with some funny moments though many more unfunny ones. Brilliant performances abound with genuine invention in many respects but it did come across as trying far too hard to be different, succeeding in certain areas but quite frankly being dishonest with us in others.