Saturday, June 27, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL        B+                
USA  (105 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Alfonso Goméz-Rejón   Official site                                        

In the past, Sundance Festival winners tended to be hit or miss, as most met the festival criteria guidelines more than any overall significance as art films.  While there have been major surprises, like Todd Haynes gay revelation Poison (1991) or Noah Baumbach’s exquisite short story THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), most Sundance winners tended to be forgettable, interesting in smaller ways that often lost their relevance outside the festival setting.  But that has all changed of late, as the festival has strung together an eclectic mix of American indie films that have a rediscovered sense of urgency on social matters while retaining a certain poetic elegance, like Jennifer Lawrence’s unflinching performance in Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone, Benh Zeitlin’s largely poetic, post-Katrina 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #1 Beasts of the Southern Wild , Ryan Coogler’s parable on race in America, Fruitvale Station (2013), and the performance of a career by J.K. Simmons in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014).  While ME AND EARL tends to divide audiences, many finding it too sarcastically irreverent, finding the humor at odds with the somber nature of the film, where it nonetheless retains a startling emotional resonance that is highly unusual for adolescent coming-of-age films.  Set in the former steel city of Pittsburgh, a working class town that has been the site of several other indie films as well like Adventureland (2009), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014), but also earlier standards like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), while let’s not forget FLASHDANCE (1983), where the decaying and dried-up steel mills have been transformed into studio backdrops, on equal footing with Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York for choice movie locations.  Adapted from the 2012 young adult novel by the same name from Jesse Andrews, a Pittsburgh native and former graduate of Schenley High School on the edge of the Hill District, the neighborhood origin of August Wilson plays as well as Steven Bochco’s surprisingly realistic TV cop drama Hill Street Blues (1981 – 87), writing a fictionalized teen romance story taking place at his old high school where the film was actually shot, while also featuring his actual childhood home as well.  The title itself may put people off, where the silly rhyming scheme is reminiscent of the corny Bubble Gum pop hit Me and You and a Dog Named Boo, LOBO - Me And You And A Dog Named Boo - 1973 Official Video  YouTube (3:07), while the film’s premise, an awkward, socially isolated young boy named Greg (Thomas Mann) tries to do a good thing by helping cheer up a dying high school classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who’s been diagnosed with stage-four leukemia.  The narrative itself has all the trappings of a sappy after school special on the risks and hazards of fighting cancer, where one might think it couldn’t be more sentimentally maudlin.  While it is fundamentally flawed, where the characters feel more stereotypical than real, the film nonetheless rises above its self-imposed artificiality and produces a surprisingly novel approach that is worth the journey. 

At the center of the film is its self-loathing narrative structure, recalling Sofia Coppola’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), where Greg offers his snarky views of the world around him, where his sarcastic, self-centered outsiderism is pretty typical of the high school perspective, as that’s all he really knows at this point in his life, showered with what he feels is undeserved affection from his parents, having little more than one friend in the world, a black kid named Earl (Ronald Cyler II) that he’s known since grade school, but he refuses to call him a friend, which suggests a certain intimacy, instead identifying him as a co-worker.  Told from the point of view of Greg, Earl is an honest and unpretentious sidekick, a man of few words who tends to be a straightshooter, offering clarity in the often muddled world of Greg, but Earl’s life remains elusive, mostly taking place offscreen, where we learn little about his hopes or dreams, but can only evaluate him through his interactions with Greg.  Some may think this sells Earl short, as it doesn’t scrutinize his life with the fullness of Greg’s world, but that would be another story, one with greater awareness of the existing racial dynamic that Greg simply doesn’t have.  This one instead abounds with a quirky energy throughout that far more accurately reflects the white experience, similar to the wise-beyond-its-years JUNO (2007), where the fundamental, underlying dialogue is filled with sardonic wit and self-effacing humor.  Both Earl and Rachel tend to be smarter and more mature than Greg, but that’s why he always feels boxed in by his cultural limitations, unable to feel a part of the greater social experience.  In this film, his deluded, self-imposed disconnect is at the heart of the film, where he feels safer without the emotional investment of reaching out to friends, refusing to take the plunge, so to speak, where he reflects the typical overprotectiveness of white culture, where his constant sullenness perfectly suits a seemingly justifiable feeling of alienation.  It’s like living in a bubble, where reality is constantly whizzing around him nearby, but it escapes him.  When Greg’s mom literally orders him to spend some time with Rachel, someone he barely knows, he reluctantly obeys with the typical resistance of trying to actually connect with someone, where Rachel is not looking for pity and would rather he simply leave her alone.  He somehow gets past the uncomfortable zone with awkward humor, where he discovers her room is filled with literally dozens of pillows, far more than anyone could possibly use, so he develops make-believe conversations with the pillows, giving them personalities much as one might do with dolls, invisible friends or hand puppets.  Soon Greg adds Earl to his visits, where he’s surprised to learn Earl has no problem sharing personal secrets, where suddenly Greg feels exposed and violated, where he inadvertently becomes the focal point, but it’s only his inflated view of himself, as his so-called problems are nothing compared to what Rachel is going through.         

Something should be said for the absurd tone of the film, which is infused with warmth and comic insight throughout, much like the J.J. Abrams film Super 8 (2011), which pays tribute to the Spielberg era of movies, including plenty of film references.  But even more than the heavy use of Hollywood special effects, the best thing about that film is the smaller-world interaction of the kids, whose unique personalities add humor and intrigue to the story, where they’re a close-knit group that draws the audience in with their personal appeal.  Similarly, this isn’t just a kid with cancer movie, but utilizes an amazing script that accentuates believability, becoming something of a love letter to the Criterion collection, as Greg and Earl have been making Kuchar brothers style ultra-cheap movies all their lives, doing silly and stupid homages to the classic works of Visconti, Kubrick, Clouzot, Schlesinger, or Hitchcock, retitling them Death in Tennis, A Sockwork Orange, Wages for Beer, 2:48 PM Cowboy, or Vere’d He Go?  These delightful movie parodies add a dreamlike visual style and are interspersed throughout, adding comic levity, while actually developed by Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh who made 21 stop-motion animated and live-action works seen in the film.  Greg also has a 400 BLOWS poster prominently displayed in his bedroom while spending a good portion of the film wearing a NOSFERATU T-shirt, while it should also be pointed out that Werner Herzog is used to comical effect.  Even Greg’s imagination resorts to animation, almost always at the sight of his overly attractive dreamgirl and high school crush, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), usually making a complete fool of himself, where one of the more familiar recurring images is a moose stomping on a smaller woodland animal like a chipmunk, which represents his sinking self-esteem.  These nutty films become the shared link between the three characters, where despite the severity of Rachel’s deteriorating medical condition, requiring heavy doses of chemotherapy leaving her glum and dispirited, there remains an upside throughout.  It’s Madison who convinces Greg to make a movie for Rachel, something that proves more difficult than he imagines, as it’s hard not to be influenced by the elephant in the room, the looming presence of death.  Despite being derailed by critics who lambasted the film, indie maverick Gus van Sant made Restless (van Sant) (2011), an equally intriguing film about a teenager with a terminal illness, where both movies are love poems on the subject of death, where instead of an obsession with morbidity or wretched emotional excess, these films both create a tone of fragility and tenderness, where the characters are a bit goofy, not afraid to make fun of themselves, but always fully aware of the tragedy of their situation.  The scene of the film is the use of Brian Eno’s The Big Ship, Brian Eno "The Big Ship" - YouTube (3:04), the moment when Rachel finally watches Greg’s film, a provocative experimental film that generates an abstract Kubrickian Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite moment from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that is both enthralling and transforming, literally raising the roof off the theater in what is arguably the most intensely dramatic and mystifyingly exotic sequence of the year, a tribute to Andy Warhol, Charles and Ray Eames’ stop-motion animation, and Stan Brackhage, where the euphoric feeling is achieved from utterly sublime filmmaking, where the quietness of the starkly humane denouement afterwards is equally haunting and heartfelt, elevating and transporting the material into magical realms.  After the somewhat slight and cynical opening, it’s certainly not what anyone could have expected, becoming one of the transcendent films of the year.  


A few words on the racial dynamic in this film, which features a black character, but next to nothing is known about him, where the film shows surprisingly little curiosity about Earl’s circumstances or home life while instead spending nearly all its time in both Greg and Rachel’s bedrooms, which provide an intimate glimpse of their lives.  Many viewers and critics find this degree of racial imbalance problematic.  For what it’s worth, I fail to share that view, though one can easily see how some might accurately criticize the film for its racial blinders, as the Earl character never really comes to life, is only touched upon without ever being examined, while the white world is delved into more deeply than the black experience, which is near absent.  But I do believe this accurately reflects white culture, especially in teenage years, where whites grow up thinking of themselves as the center of attention, where they may spend their days side by side with blacks, but don’t ever stop to think about the “other,” as they’re too busy thinking only about themselves.  Blacks, on the other hand, are forced to be aware of whites whether they want to or not.  They really have no choice.  This difference in perspective is immediately apparent to blacks but unrecognizable to most whites, where the real “cause” of racism as that whites are so overprotected, especially by parents and police, while blacks are viewed and treated differently, as if they can be manhandled, in order to protect the prevailing “white” society from the epidemic that is black on black crime.  But that’s nowhere to be seen in this movie.

This film doesn’t spend a minute analyzing racial implications, which is pretty typical of the more privileged white culture, where this film essentially expresses overly sarcastic, overly literate “white” humor, exactly as does an entire vein of indie films, like JUNO, ADVENTURELAND, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, or THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, not to mention dozens of others.  The only difference here is that one of the featured characters in this film is black, so the expectation is that the prevailing white culture would be more respectful and observant of the black experience.  While it may not be the racially inclusive and diversified world we’d like, it’s actually more honest to portray whites, particularly teenagers in high school, avoiding the issue, demonstrating little racial acumen, where instead they spend all their time thinking only of themselves.  This deluded and self-centered view of the world is at the heart of the picture and only evolves beyond that once Greg chooses to show Rachel the film he made specifically for her, which brings about a radical transformation.  This film uses a cinematic aesthetic to demonstrate how art can transcend otherwise narrow cultural interests and social limitations. 

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