I know you’ve probably read a million movie reviews that start off with some self-indulgent illustration, but bear with me; this is not one of those reviews.
In high school I liked this girl for four years but never had the guts to let my guard down and talk to her. Sure, we had conversations, but never anything more than the meaningless lip-flap you have with an acquaintance you bump into at the supermarket. I was afraid of rejection but also that if she got to know me she wouldn’t share my feelings. It’s been over a year and I haven’t talked to her, and probably never will. Now you’re getting really annoyed; I’ve gotten through over 100 words and I still haven’t even mentioned the movie I’m reviewing yet. What kind of lazy writing is this?
I love coming of age movies, not because they tend to be very good but because I can live something that I feel I missed out on. I was never very popular. I didn’t go to parties, lose my virginity, do drugs, or take a girl to prom. Hollywood teen films offer me wish-fulfillment.
If Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (winner of the US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at this year’s Sundance) were a person, I would wrap my arms around him and squeeze as hard as I could. Based on a single viewing, this is one of the most affecting and lovely films I’ve ever seen. It’s funny, sad, moving, and profound. That it also subverts almost every expectation while reinventing tropes you’ve seen a million times makes it that much more unpredictable and moving. Greg, an awkward high school senior who interacts in the safety of his empty social cocoon, then befriends a girl with leukemia, closely resembles attributes I see in myself: awkwardness, unattractiveness, complete ineptitude in interactions with girls but also a head-over-heels love with cinema.
I adore the moment where Greg–the main character, who makes terrible homages to classics like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange and Breathless (and many, many more of my favorite movies)–is in his room directly above where his parents are fighting about his grades and how he won’t be admitted into college the following year. Greg has spent so much time with Rachel, the dying girl, that he has done “literally zero homework” all year. Like a drug, Greg injects himself with a dose of Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, escaping to another world of sadness to express his emotion and frustration. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done that.
Greg is unlike other teen movie protagonists we’ve become accustomed to. He doesn’t drink. He’s not trying to lose his virginity. He doesn’t do drugs, although he does once accidentally. He’s not obsessed with finding a date for prom. He’s not a jock, a nerd, a geek, a bookworm or any other stereotype. He is clunky and unrefined. He says excruciatingly stupid things yet still remains entirely endearing to us because we could see ourselves acting that way.
One critic friend argued that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl panders to a high-brow audience with the constant references to classic films and the overall snarky self-satisfaction it seems to have with itself. There are many moments where the film calls attention to its construction by having Greg narrate a contrast between this movie and a conventional Hollywood one. For example, when he and Rachel begin to have some chemistry, he breaks up the moment by saying, “So if this was a touching romantic story our eyes would meet and suddenly we would be furiously making out with the passion of 1000 suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.” This approach is often very funny, but more importantly it serves the story by creating an ironic distance that Greg not only puts up between him and the other characters but also the spectator. As Greg learns to open up to those around him, the narration becomes less self-reflexive and more a tool to express emotion.
When Greg tells us that the movie we’re watching won’t end with Rachel dying because it’s not that kind of low-level film, it is like a defense mechanism against the audience judging him. So in the end, once his arc is complete, the film allows itself to go into more conventional story beats (albeit in a different way from what you’ve seen) because Greg is no longer hiding behind his pretentions. This approach is so apparent in the final scene that seems almost ripped out of the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What ends up separating this film from more gooey manipulation is that it uses these tropes to tell us something about the character through the tonal shift.
After graduating, I tried talking to that girl, and it was too little too late. I was way too forward, and maybe a little creepy. Like Greg with Rachel, I will probably never talk to her again. Putting yourself out there is a risk, and having people turn you away does hurt. I got the worst possible outcome of rejection and I learned if you don’t try, you end up stuck alone inside a prison you’ve built for yourself.
As a self-loathing and cinema-loving introvert, I adore Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Greg’s film killed Rachel; hopefully this review wasn’t that fatal.