The buzz on this Sundance coming-of-age comedy was good. I was expecting something quirky and bittersweet. Instead, I got something frustratingly common: Another movie that mistakes minorities as tools of growth for white straight male heroes. The fact that this is not a Hollywood product, but a praised indie makes this all the more infuriating. If we can’t take risks in indie films, where can we? Massively budgeted sequels of decades old action movies?
What is even going on this summer?
Anyhow, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl centers on the least compelling of its three titular characters, a whiny loner named Greg (Thomas Mann). The kid’s biggest issue is his rock-bottom self-esteem, which he confronts through the forced friendship (he is willfully detached unless bullied into socializing) with Earl (the black bestie) and Rachel (the dying girl). Troublingly, Greg’s problems seem incredibly petty compared to those of his friends.
Earl (the intriguing RJ Cyler) lives in a shitty neighborhood with a chronically depressed single mom and his older brother who—if the endless blunts and vicious pit bull are any indication—is a less than upstanding citizen. Earl has real problems, but Greg never cares. And while college is a recurring discussion in the film, Earl’s college ambitions (or lack thereof) are never once brought up.
Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, which not only threatens her life but also isolates her from every high school activity that once seemed normal. Now, she depends on Greg and Earl to be her friends, and Greg acts throughout like this is a chore. Which it actually is, as his mom demanded he do it.
To be fair, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon fills Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with charming details. The cinematography—though sometimes distractingly showy—is captivating, giving a distanced and deranged view of Pittsburgh that suits Greg’s isolated attitude. The music—which includes a dreamy amount of glam rock—thrums with life and longing. The production design is plump with twee props, costumes and set designs that suggest someone had a big crush on Garden State. Plus Earl and Greg have a unique hobby, parodying art house movies with no-budget DIY versions of their own like “Breathe Less,” “My Dinner With Andre The Giant” and “A Sockwork Orange” (with sock puppets, duh). And this allows for all kinds of crafty quirkiness and esoteric jokes.
But for all the fun world-building, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl cannot escape its crass use of the marginalized as props. Why is Greg’s the story we’re following? Rachel’s is the most dramatic. Earl’s is ripe with possibility. But instead, we follow this mopey dipshit whose parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman in teeny roles in which they are woefully underused) love him, can afford to send him to college, and desperately want to. But…what is his problem exactly? Oh, he thinks he sucks. Probably because he does!
This whole damn movie Greg makes everything about him, including Rachel’s tragedy. Half-way through the film, I realized that aside from her love of scissors and fondness for pillows, I knew virtually nothing about this girl. Similarly, Earl’s sad circumstances are setup in Greg’s matter-of-fact voiceover, but he as a character has so little to do—aside deliver one-liners in an awkwardly stereotypical “blaccent”—that I began to suspect that he was Greg’s imaginary friend.
No one at school seemed to notice him. It made sense, until I realized that the script (by Jesse Andrews adapted from his book) just doesn’t care about Earl or the dying girl. The former may be contemporary in his racist stereotypes, but he is nonetheless Greg’s magical negro. The latter is Greg’s woman in fridge. One is meant to lead him down the path of righteousness, the other meant to make him feel things through her demise.
Yes, Rachel dies. If you see the movie, Greg will promise you repeatedly that despite the title, she will survive. But he’s a liar and she’s a plot device. So she dies, and only then does he actually begin to explore who she was by rifling through the things in her room. In the film’s insulting final moments, Rachel’s pain and death is reduced to nothing more than an anecdote of Greg’s to help him stand out in his college admissions efforts. What will happen to Earl? Oh, did you care? Because the movie doesn’t, offering zero resolution there.
I don’t revel in trashing an independent film. But this here is the problem with so much contemporary cinema, distilled in one quirky but deeply aggravating indie. Actually, I’m sorry I ever suggested this was a summer flick to look forward to. Please accept my apologies. And heed my warning: avoid Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.