Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 27, 2015 5:08 am 
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In this Sundance hit Greg (Thomas Mann), a gangly Pittsburgh high school senior whose hobby is making movie parodies with a black pal ("co-worker") from a tough neighborhood (Earl, RJ Cyler), is pushed by his mom into befriending a classmate he barely knows named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after she's diagnosed with leukemia. He apologizes to the girl for agreeing to this forced good deed, and never intends to follow through past the first visit to her house. But the awkward situation develops into a real friendship -- albeit a "doomed" one, since the girl is indeed going to die within the year. That first meeting between Greg and Rachel, with all its awkwardness and wry wit, is a charmer. This relationship becomes the senior project that will be a better growing up experience for Greg than anything school could offer. And it will seriously cut into school.

So this is where we are with YA-novels-into-films today. Gone are the days of Eighties youth pictures that celebrated youth as something glamorous and fun -- with a sexy Hollywood Brat Pack to back them up. Gone are S.E. Hinton's down-to-earth tales of working class teens facing hardscrabble life issues in the plainest of terms. Jesse Andrews' YA novel, adapted by him for this movie, is a romance-free Fault in Our Stars that is turned by young director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon into a veritable twittering machine of hip gimmicks and jokey details.

The relative freedom from treacle is welcome. And maybe it's sophisticated or smart to show a teen boy and girl can be simply very good friends and go through together the toughest thing that can happen. S.E. Hinton would approve of that aspect. But she would have firmly situated Greg in a social community, instead of giving him surroundings like jokey accessaries. These include the sociology prof dad (Nick Offerman) who lounges around at home in a bathrobe eating odd foods and watching Werner Herzog movies. Thomas Mann's imitation of Herzogian English is spot-on, but some of this stuff is just noise. There's the muscular, tattooed favorite teacher at school, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), with a penchant for Vietnamese Phở, whom Greg and Earl hang and watch movies with at lunchtime. And of course there's Earl, the jokey friend, and the most problematic character, because he's Greg's closest associate, but he, too, seems like more than anything an accessory. Earl is colorful; he talks ghetto black to Greg, yet has a white best friend and is cinema-sophisticated. Playing Earl, RJ Cyler is so "real" he doesn't quite seem there. His gibes at Greg are so rapidly tossed off they disappear before they strike.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is all over the map in his caffeinated film-school-enthusiastic efforts to keep us awake and stimulated and to appear with it. There are the constant chapter intertitles, "This is the part where I meet the dying girl," "This is the part where the last part begins," "123rd day of the doomed friendship," that kind of thing. And of course the 42 movie parodies, consisting mainly of the titles and the jacket covers. The idea got fuller development in MIchel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, and you can see an actual vesion of it in the amazing documentary The Wolfpack. It's clever here, but it's more just window dressing. All this stuff serves to make Greg, despite his lack of self-esteem and conviction he looks like "a chipmunk", an Interesting Person. (The claim of being physically pathetic gibes ill with Thomas Mann's tallness and blondness, but it would be churlish to question a teen boy's low self esteem.)

The cliché of the rundown of high school cliques is spruced up by saying the incompababilities are so intense the lunchroom is like "Kandahar," and by having Greg maintain superficial friendly relations with all of them, while staying essentially "invisible." That's fine, nice work if you can do it. But Earl is still Greg's only real connection, and Earl, without connections of his own, stays only an accessory.

Rachel and her mom Denise (Molly Shannon), who gets inappropriately lustful with Greg when he first appears and who for no special reason always has a wine glass in her hand, are Jewish, but the actresses, for some reason, aren't. Rachel gets to be rueful, bitter, and honest about her illness: but so does the girl in The Fault in Our Stars, which offers more treacle, but also more authentic feeling. There is a lot else going on in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, including Rachel's room, her tree wallpaper, and the stuff about scissors and books showing Earl can still learn things about Rachel after she's gone. His teacher promises this, as a sort of consolation for losing her. (This seems a little too much like a Teaching Point, one of the traps lying in wait for YA writers.) There is the special movie for Rachel that Earl and Greg struggle to make during her illness, which doesn't work very well for either them or us. But what this does convey is the high school senior's constant anxious sense of impending deadlines: prom dates, college applications, making something of the last of your youth, everything rapidly fading away. Including, in this case, a best friend's very life.

And so there is the theme of Greg's college applications and his nonexistent final term school work, leading to Rachel's unlikely letter of special pleading to the college that has unaccepted Greg in view of his radically declined grades. Through his voice-overs (another cute film device) Greg is in control of the story (this is about "Me" more than the dying girl), and so he keeps telling us she's not really going to die, to keep us cheered up. This is a movie that barely slows down to take a breath or gives the viewer time to take one.

All this keeps us busy and saves us from sentimentality and, perhaps, from false notes. Where The Fault Is in Our Stars does nothing but urge us to feel sad, Me and Earl, with all its busy treacle-blockers, seems hell-bent on saving us from doing so, while admitting that we are going to have to, sooner or later. Is this how actual "young adults" deal with stuff now? It's not exactly grown-up and it's not exactly immature either. Now and then amid all the jitteriness and faux cleverness and rage to keep us entertained, it takes a little time to sit with its feelings. But not enough.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, 105 mins, debuted at Sundance, where it won the fiction feature Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award; over a dozen other mostly US festivals. US release 12 June; UK, 4 September.

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