A Little Friendship Never Killed Anyone
Thomas Mann plays Greg Gaines, a self-loathing socially awkward teenager with a love for classic cinema. Terrified of rejection, he doesn’t like to assign labels and while he has a connection with every social group, he doesn’t belong to any of them. His only friend is the eponymous Earl [Cyler] with whom he makes parody versions of the films they enjoy. Through his mother, Greg learns that a fellow student Rachel [Cooke] has been diagnosed with leukaemia and she guilts him into spending time with her. Greg begrudgingly capitulates and slowly builds a friendship with the young girl. Through this process, both teenagers get to know one another but Greg still refuses to label them as friends. As Rachel’s affliction worsens, Greg abandons his schoolwork to spend time with the titular ‘dying girl.’
Channelling the works of Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson and John Hughes, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a bit of a surreal mix between the extremely impressive and honest 50/50, the offbeat Be Kind Rewind and the rather manipulative The Fault In Our Stars. But to separate itself from all these releases, it adds a thick layer of self-aware narration to make the overall subject matter more palatable. This presents two troubling issues. First off, the nature of cliché is constantly being questioned by the independent scene (thus the mainstream will catch-on eventually) leading to a wealth of fourth-wall-breaking and execution of tropes undermined by acknowledgment that its very presence is a cliché. This doesn’t always work. I mean, it can be very cleverly utilised and even in this release it’s handled well at times but overall it just reminds us that the script resorted to a tired narrative development that we’ve seen time and again but shrugged its shoulders and smiled as if to say “Yeah, I know but what are you going to do?”. Secondly, all these comparisons with directors and previous releases needs to be highlighted because while it comes across as initially quite complimentary, it is in fact a point of contention. Imitation being used to describe something is acceptable but it’s only when there is no comparison to draw that you have something genuinely special (positive or negative).
Before I get on to the acting itself, I have to highlight the way in which the students are written; in essence, something feels a little off about the lack of genuine awkwardness these kids demonstrate. There are plenty of high school based releases but achieving an accurate representation of interaction always requires a little suspension of disbelief. This almost always comes down to the fact that even the cute, shy bumbling feels a step further than how teenagers actually manifest their messy, warped, self-involved perspectives. The teenage characters connect with a self-awareness that really only presents itself in your early twenties and serves to dampen the otherwise realistic portrayals and long tracking shots of over-talking or silence. I mean, I appreciate that certain kids like older, avant-garde films (I was one of them) but being able to replicate them so cuttingly doesn’t strike true. Much like Wes Anderson characters, these quirky individuals are just too idiosyncratic to be real, existing in the same fictional realm as the cool gangster or the hot girl in an action film. These are elevated fictional fantasies which bear no real semblance to the average human being. Sure, arguing the authenticity of this escapism is a bit of a petty blow but it’s a valid point of contention that needs to be addressed.
Staying with the characters for a second, I’d like to discuss Earl. Despite being a title character, Earl is a bit of an unexplored oddity. He’s easily the most interesting individual but serves as the wise sidekick stereotype, who keeps schtum until something poignant needs to be said. I appreciate this is the story of a young man dealing with the diagnosis of a stranger who becomes a friend but considering the importance Earl plays in Greg’s life, he’s kept at arm’s length. The script tries to cover this multiple times by highlighting a deeply-rooted psychological phobia that prevents Greg from attaching labels to anyone, to ensure they cannot reject him but the script also keeps Earl at arm’s length. This is an individual who is very socially closed off but extremely savvy as to how everyone interacts. He clearly comes from a different background to his friend but also seemingly to the entire school, purposefully ostracising himself for whatever reason. On top of that there is a healthy amount of cameos and small supports from well-known actors, all of whom perform commendably but without any real memorable impact.
The direction is novel, energetic and clearly inspired by similar independent directors, equally the editing and cinematography are wonderfully handled but this isn’t the kind of release that falls back on the technical aspects. Case in point, the score is the same washy, folky, independent twanging that you’d expect from this kind of film. I’m not a fan but bias aside, it’s rather typical and serves as yet another obvious cliché that could have been sidestepped. Again, the acting is solid and distracts you from the flaws in the writing but the flaws are still there and while you leave the film feeling entertained, it doesn’t take too much reflective thought for the cracks to show.
4th September 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
Visiting Rachel in the hospital, Greg bemoans his mother’s hounding him to apply for a college and like many teenagers, he has no real idea how to deal with telephone-directory-sized list of possibilities. Believing he is acting foolishly, Rachel forces Greg to apply to Pittsburgh State. He does so but with an air of charming childish impudence, completing the application in the style of Werner Herzog. It’s a decent impression and one which is very accurate to the bleak ranting of the acclaimed director. And to top the whole thing off, it’s undercut by a simple throw-away line that ruins the whole jovial mood.
The two lead characters are very impressive. I’d like to include Earl in that list.. but.. see above. Taking a break from sideswiping us with quirky camera angles and amusing on-screen titles, the film holds a steady uncut shot of Rachel and Greg having a genuinely heartfelt and cutting conversation that proves without a doubt that they are more than capable of holding a scene without quick cuts or gimmicks.
“You’re in boring Jewish girls, subgroup 2a. Please appreciate how honest I was with you”
In A Few Words:
“Well-made and decently handled but fails to really say anything new or different to really stand out”