Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Films with narcissistic central characters can be rewarding but are often difficult to get right (essentially asking the audience to take an interest in someone they don’t like). The likes of Greenberg or Listen Up Philip feature wholly toxic and self-centred characters; crucially however, we see how the other characters react to the narcissism and struggle to accept this selfish behaviour. Whereas these stories are being told from an objective point of view, the events of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl are being told from Greg’s point of view and so a wholly objective viewpoint is perhaps not appropriate. Greg’s subjective viewpoint however should reflect that he has lived through the events he is describing, that he has already learned the important life lessons that unfold on screen. We need to see the other characters’ reactions in order to understand what Greg’s narcissistic tendencies were previously preventing him from seeing. There needs to be something in either Greg’s narration or the way the other characters act around Greg to show that what Greg was perceiving and reacting to at the time, wasn’t indicative of what was actually happening.
The complete and utter failure to achieve this by writer Jesse Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon means that the supposedly ‘real’ world that they’ve created for the film is nothing but a fantasy: a world where events occur and characters behave only in ways that benefit Greg (Thomas Mann); where every important life lesson comes with an sizeable portion of bullshit.
The story begins in earnest when Greg’s mum (Connie Britton) forces Greg to spend time with Rachel, a girl at his school recently diagnosed leukaemia, so that he can become a better person, despite Rachel explicitly saying that she doesn’t want to hang out with Greg. She is made to behave in an entirely unrealistic and objectionable manner in order to aid Greg’s emotional journey. Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mum, Denise, and her one and only reaction to her daughter’s diagnosis is to start drinking and flirt inappropriately with Greg. I don’t think she even speaks to Rachel at any point in the film, presumably because any interaction of that kind would in no way benefit Greg.
All of Rachel’s other friends (including those seen comforting her at the beginning of the film) conveniently disappear when Greg appears. In the real world version of this story, Greg would just become a friend who would still go through emotional turmoil as Rachel’s condition worsens; in this fantastical version, it’s not enough to be just a friend and so Greg has to be the only friend. Even Earl (R J Cyler) doesn’t get much of a look in, despite being the one who first told Rachel about his and Greg’s movies. After a while, he too stops hanging out with Rachel and Greg again becomes the only person shown visiting her. His only real contribution is to finally call out Greg on his narcissism, but only when Greg needs to hear it.
When Madison dares to have a go at Greg at an inconvenient time for him, she almost immediately apologises. Madison is nothing but pleasant and friendly towards Greg, but he has pre-formed ideas that, as the pretty girl, she is only going to hurt his feelings. I understand that Greg was insecure enough to form this opinion in the first place, but the filmmakers don’t appear to think that Greg was in the wrong. He is never shown or heard realising that he was wrong to prejudge her. Even when Madison asks Greg to the prom, he gives a dickish, non-committal answer that we’re meant to find endearing but comes across as plain rude.
For reasons that I can’t fathom, the filmmakers insist on turning Greg’s decision to visit Rachel in the hospital into a twist; Greg looks all set to go to prom but then gets out of his limo at the hospital. It’s one of (if not the) crucial choice that Greg makes in the film (deciding to accept Rachel’s decision and reconcile with her before it’s too late) but when presented as it is, we don’t see how, when and why this decision was reached; nor do we see where Madison ended up in Greg’s scheme. The most egregious manipulation though is Greg insisting (in his narration) that Rachel does not die. When your film is called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, announcing that the dying girl doesn’t die is not going to make it more shocking and moving when she does die; it’s a dishonest parlour trick. I’m not saying that it wasn’t sad nor that a film shouldn’t try to move its audience, just don’t cheapen it.
Even the film’s ending fails to serve anyone who isn’t called Greg. Greg’s history teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) gives a significant speech about his father earlier in the film. At the time of his father’s death, he met lots of people who had known his father and shared their experiences and memories of his father with him. Through these interactions, he learnt more about his father than he could possibly have known on his own and his father’s life lived on through the people around him.
After Rachel’s death, Greg too learns things about her that he did not know, but only through experiences that relate directly to him. There are plenty of people at the funeral but they are never allowed to speak and share their experiences of Rachel. Whilst Rachel does a wonderful thing to try and help Greg, she doesn’t appear to do anything to help Earl or even write to him to acknowledge how much she enjoyed the films; it’s a smear against her character to suggest that she would only care about Greg. It might not directly relate to Greg, but he could learn about Rachel’s thoughtfulness and kindness through he gestures towards others; that is the whole point of Mr McCarthy’s speech.
There are some genuine and heartfelt moments in the film, usually coming from Rachel and her changing emotions as her condition worsens. In fact all of the performances are engaging, even if the characters aren’t up to scratch. Yet at all times, the filmmakers seem intent on ruining the honesty of each of these moments by cranking up the levels of quirk to ‘beyond irksome’. Gomez-Rejon apes numerous different directing styles without ever settling on a style and look for the film. The idea of Greg and Earl making short spoofs of classic films works at first, but the effect is diluted every time the film falls back on what is essentially the same joke in different guises. Furthermore, it’s never made clear what exactly Greg and Earl like about the classic films and what they get out of making their spoofs? All of this, along with a superfluous scene where Greg and Earl flick through the names of various directors on the sorting cards of a shop’s DVD shelves, led me to conclusion that Gomez-Rejon was largely just trying to win over the cine-literate with a nudge and a wink to famous films; Greg and Earl making movies serves a narrative purpose, but not enough to justify the extent of the prevalence of the parodies in the film.
I haven’t read Jesse Andrews’ novel and it’s possibly that the first person perspective works better in print, via some sort of internal monologue. That doesn’t get the filmmakers off the hook; ensuring an adaptation works in its new format is a challenge that has to be met, otherwise the material is perhaps not suitable for adaptation.
Joss Whedon gave this piece of advice about perspective in a screenplay:
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history… But if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ultimately doesn’t work because it fails to recognise anyone’s perspective other than its narcissistic and insufferable protagonist.

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