The Film That Knew Too Much
Summer must be over: there's a new Woody Allen movie coming out fairly soon, for one thing, while the supply of genuine blockbusters seems to have dried up and we are starting to see a trickle of what I can only call 'quality' films – not because they're necessarily better than the more commercial fare that's out in the summer, but because they seem to be pitching to a slightly more discerning audience. A case in point is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is out and about at the moment.
An interesting title, n'est ce pas? It strikes me as being very carefully calculated to strike exactly the notes of honesty, black comedy, and shocking cynicism that the film-makers wanted, and it's fair to say that this level of premeditation informs much of the content of the film. Thomas Mann (not the one you may be thinking of, book lovers) plays Greg, a Pittsburgh high schooler who has survived the experience largely unscathed, as a result of keeping an invisibly low profile and not really making any connections with anyone. The sole exception is his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he spends much of his time making micro-budget film parodies.
This changes (inevitably) when his mother basically forces him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a vague acquaintance from school who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The two eventually become friends, and when Greg and Earl's substantial back catalogue of films becomes public knowledge, the next step is obvious: make a new film to cheer Rachel up. But can Greg do this while still maintaining his studious detachment from any genuine emotional commitment? Or is it time for him to finally decide who he is and what he wants to do with his life?
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those films which has been rather well-reviewed elsewhere, something which will no doubt be of great consolation to the producers as they consider the $1.3m shortfall in the film's takings compared to its budget. In short, it's clearly connected much better with critics than it has with the mainstream audience, and it is a little difficult to see why this should be.
It is certainly an extremely well-acted film, with performances from the trio of leads that would definitely be called star-making had the film been a bigger success. Olivia Cooke has impressed me in a couple of good genre movies in the past; she is equally good here in something much less genre-oriented. The film also contains some lovely miniatures, in the form of the supporting performances from Jon Bernthal, Molly Shannon, and the ever-reliable Nick Offerman.
And, I suppose, the film is filled with a kind of knowing wit and cine-literacy than seems practically machine-tooled to make critics fall in love with it. This may be a combination of high school comedy, tear jerker, and bildungsroman, but it's one which is stuffed with references to Werner Herzog documentaries, Stanley Kubrick movies, various raves from world cinema, and so on. (Speaking personally, I'm finding it almost impossible to be less than lavish in my praise for a film which – for crying out loud – includes homages to Peeping Tom and the fifth ever Doctor Who cliffhanger, in the same shot.)
On the other hand, though, once you get past all the film references and dry humour there's not a very great deal here that you haven't seen before – and as the film goes on it does turn into something more approaching a conventional tear jerker. Rachel's leukemia is of the photogenic, soft-focus, cinematic kind, of course.
And perhaps it's here that the film's calculatedly awkward and gauche stylings perhaps start to work against it – that title, as well as several other things which are present, appear to be an attempt to stop the film from becoming too sappy and sentimental, to position it as something more elevated – hip, but in an emotionally committed kind of way. Personally I thought the film made a pretty good fist of this, but it may be that the audience that turned out in droves for an unashamedly sentimental weepie like The Fault In Our Stars didn't much care for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's mock-cynicism, barely convincing though it is. (They probably didn't go a bundle for the Werner Herzog references either, come to think of it.)
Certainly, I enjoyed the film a lot – there is much talent and inventiveness on display, along with some genuinely surprising moments – but, certainly as it went on, I found it wasn't quite having the emotional impact on me that I'd expected, or that the makers would have hoped for. I could appreciate the skill and artistry that had gone into it, but the very nature of the thing as something so clever and knowing and aware of itself stopped me from making a genuine emotional connection with it – which is ironic, given that this kind of situation is on one level what the film is actually about. Still, it's a carefully assembled package that has enough sincerity not to feel actually manipulative.