Since its buzzy debut back in January at Sundance, I am sure the issue has come up a billion times: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has an issue with tokenism. During a preview earlier this month it was hard to keep my mind off how isolated the lead character is from his peers, and it translates in the movie in an egocentric manner that becomes hard to shake off for far too much of the movie. By the time the payoff arrives, the cost feels too high, and you just want to be rid of this titular “Me” character.
Thomas Mann gives Greg an awkward charm for a guy who does not wish to stand out at his high school. He is ironically gregarious, trying to make friends with everyone, from goths to jocks, as to blend into the background. Yet, the only person he considers a friend, but refers to as his “co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American kid from a destitute neighborhood he has known since childhood. They make home movies together that are naïve-art adaptations of classic movies (their version of The Third Man is entitled “The Turd Man”). But this collaborative relationship and shared affection for the film canon and their smart aleck reinterpretations never seems to fulfill him. It is only after he gets to know terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke) that he finds a true friendship and a genuine urge to create something original at the casual behest of Earl. That he has to learn this from a “dying girl” offers a grim premise that could have said a lot about the disconnection of earthy, grounded-in-reality relationships had the film presented us with solidly developed characters in scenes that don’t feel trite and falter to their manipulative, sentimental designs.
No one is allowed to stand out beyond Greg, and it’s hard to find him likable because the character only seems driven by exterior forces. His mother (Connie Britton) is the one who pushes Greg to spend time with Rachel after she is diagnosed with Leukemia. After he shows up at Rachel’s house, he is invited in by her ridiculously depressed, wine-swilling mother (Molly Shannon). Rachel sees through the farce of Greg’s appearance. Still, after a cynical chat in her bedroom about her prognosis and the abundance of pillows in her room and Greg’s reference to masturbation, Rachel is charmed. The viewer gets an easy way in to Greg because Rachel, a cancer-stricken cipher, who shows little autonomy, is reduced to a person trapped in her bedroom filled with craft projects of her design to characterize her.
Earl suffers his own reduction. He is Greg’s sidekick who either offers callous statements (his catch phrase seems to be “Did you feel dem titties?”) or profound statements that shake Greg out of his somnambulant egotism. Earl has an older brother (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who figures into the film in flashbacks to the younger days of the two friends. He’s a mere bully who sits on the porch to his family’s ramshackle house and sicks his pit bull on Greg whenever he comes by. There’s not much more to say about Earl, as the only benefit of his presence is as a kind of conscience for Greg, when he needs it. Otherwise, they have a miniscule almost ambivalent relationship.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, brings his talents from television (“Glee” and “American Horror Story”) to infuse the film, adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews who wrote the original novel, with a saccharine preciousness that grows tiresome quick. Gomez-Rejon overwhelms the drama with wearisome references to Criterion Collection DVDs, making for a convenient litmus for Greg and Earl’s taste for cinema and — God forgive him — about 20 pieces of music from Brian Eno’s catalog of early masterworks, even including obscure collaborations with Krautrock greats Cluster. It’s great music, but beyond a few seconds of atmospheric extra-diegetic melodies for transitions between scenes, the music never has space in the film to meld with the drama and settle in as thematic. Peter Jackson did it much better a few years ago in The Lovely Bones (Brian Eno and The Lovely Bones), a film for which Eno also composed or reshaped his music. The only exception is the use of “The Big Ship” during the film’s climax, a piece that also accompanied a similarly dramatic moment in The Lovely Bones, so even the decision to allow that piece to breath in Me and Earl feels like it loses some credibility.
Criterion product placement and the abuse of Eno’s music can hardly save this film from its problematic story. Referencing so much great art does not transfer over to Gomez-Rejon’s film. Early on, the film is weighed down by the tropes of high school malaise, and when Greg finally comes to his revelation that he has lost a friend, the film hits every trite note that turns loss of a loved one into sentimentality to weary effect. Depending on what triggers the tears for you, the filmmakers try to bring it up. Sure, there were people sobbing all around me in living surround sound, but all I saw was manipulation of heartstring plucking.
Beyond its precious tone that minimizes death to a sentiment, obscuring an egocentric story about a kid who (maybe) learns empathy at the cost of losing a friend to death, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has that bigger issue: tokenism. A chance for Greg, a white kid, to learn about his best friend and recognize him beyond “co-worker” is never developed. They pair up as outcasts who never connect. Even worse, Rachel is presented as a darling young person about to die throughout the film, as if that’s the only thing that characterizes her as a human being. For all its sincerity, the movie is ultimately a disappointing appropriation of cool without genuine heart that plays the audience in a rather condescending way. A lot people will love it, but it’s only because it’s pushing easy buttons that make us human. Still, there’s nothing really human about this movie, which feels like was produced by an algorithm instead of someone with heart.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 (references to sex, drugs with some salty language). It opens in limited release at several multiplexes in our Miami area (visit this page for dates screening locations near you in other cities). For indie supporters, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on July 1. All images in this review are courtesy of Fox Searchlight who also invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.