Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Fox Searchlight Pictures, PG-13)

Me--Earl 75My overriding feeling is that it is a movie that I want to like, but which doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

 




Me--Earl 500

I’ve written in the past about how movies that seem like they were made for just for you can lead to overzealous nitpicking when you actually come to see them for the first time. That is the exact situation I found myself in the first (and only, as of this writing) time I screened the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award-winning Me & Earl & the Dying Girl. It’s a coming-of-age movie (I’m a sucker for those!) about high schoolers who are maybe too into classics of international cinema (like me!—minus the high school part), and the score is overly reliant on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which album I’ve adored since I first came across it in, you guessed it, high school. Meanwhile, the “me” of the title, Greg (Thomas Mann), is not too far off in terms of personality from what I was like in high school.  Among many filmmakers, Greg is obsessed in particular with Werner Herzog (clips from Burden of Dreams, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo all appear, and Greg even writes an essay for a college application in Herzog’s voice), and by nothing other than coincidence as I was sitting in the movie theatre waiting for the film to start I was reading a 500+ page book of interviews with Herzog. With all of these details in mind, I’m bound to love this movie, right?

Well, maybe. I was distracted as I watched it by things that weren’t always the movie’s fault, or else were maybe too insignificant to really care about as much as I did. For example, early in the film Greg and his father (Parks & Recreation’s Nick Offerman) watch Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but they watch the English dub of it, instead of its original German. Now, come on—what movie nerd would watch the English dub of a beloved foreign film? Elsewhere, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl’s trailer gives away too much of the movie’s tone and too many of its good jokes, so a lot of what I would have enjoyed was ruined for me outside of the context of the film. Besides, everything in the film seems to come from everywhere else; the superimposed counting of days and voiceover asides about how “this is not a love story” reek of (500) Days of Summer; the plot, which is essentially a melodrama centered on a cancerous teen (the “dying girl” of the title, whose name is Rachel and played by Olivia Cooke), is a little too close to last year’s hit The Fault in Our Stars; a lot of the production design and establishing shots have too much of a whiff of Wes Anderson about them. Maybe a more grave mistake is that the film appears to want to affiliate itself with the Criterion Collection so badly—you’re constantly seeing Criterion DVDs on shelves, posters, laserdiscs, clips from their released films, etc.—while not living up to that label’s standards of quality. It’s like when Absolut Vodka creates ads that reference Bitches Brew or Aladdin Sane; they’re just sticking two things that don’t have much in common together, in an attempt to culturally affiliate their own thing with the other, infinitely cooler thing.

You have probably picked up by now that most of this is film nerd nonsense. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, despite what you might assume from its cloying title, is actually a pretty good film, and one I expect I’ll like quite a bit more on future viewings, when I’m not so distracted by the things it gets wrong, and can instead focus on the things it gets right. Frankly, I don’t love Greg, but I don’t like High School Pete either, so there you have it. Olivia Cooke is excellent as Rachel, who is very likable while also being justifiably grumpy and low-energy throughout the film. Greg’s “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), who Greg claims as such because he doesn’t like to commit to having friends, is also an interesting presence. The film is often funny, and does get a good amount of film nerd stuff right, despite my initial impressions—it can be fun to pick out references as the film goes along, which references aren’t always signposted as such. Many music cues are conspicuously recognizable from classic movies, Greg and Earl use a mock-up of Errol Morris’ Interrotron as they make a movie for Rachel, a movie Greg makes is a direct reference to Andy Warhol’s screen tests of people like Lou Reed, etc. If you’re the sort that likes to congratulate yourself on how smart you are as you watch a movie, this is a good one for you—you can at once act like you’re above it and be satisfied on recognizing some of its more obscure references!

It’s of course hard to say with any kind of certainty, but at this point I’d wager that when I have the opportunity to watch this movie on my own terms sometime in the future, I’ll probably like it a whole lot, at least as something of a guilty pleasure and possibly as a legitimate Good Movie. For now, though, my overriding feeling is that it is a movie that I want to like, but which doesn’t quite live up to its potential. | Pete Timmermann

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