A twee hell
The Sundance Film Festival is a respected institution, a vital showcase and support system for independent and world cinema that has been operating for nearly four decades. However, a certain type of incredibly annoying American independent film has become synonymous with the festival over the years (i.e., quirky, manic-depressive, masturbatory, shallow and false “the summer I grew up” dramedies), to the point that the term “Sundance movie” is almost always used in a pejorative manner.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s oxygen-deprived Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and while it’s relatively weightless and apolitical, the double win was inevitable. This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence. Every line, gesture, story beat and camera move might as well have air quotes around it, and yet Gomez-Rejon also insists on plying us with insipid life lessons. It’s like Juno on crystal meth.
“I have no idea how to tell this story,” says Greg (the “me” of “me and Earl”) to open the film, and from there Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel) unload a nonstop barrage of cutesy narration, winking intertitles (“Day 1 of Doomed Friendship”), stop-motion animation, 360-degree pans and overall in-your-face whimsy. If you’re on the film’s twee wavelength, you’ll probably slurp it down like a tureen of psychedelic soup, but I didn’t buy Gomez-Rejon’s sales pitch for a second, and so it felt like I was being harassed by a pandering emotional panhandler for 105 minutes.
RJ Cyler plays Earl and Olivia Cooke plays the dying girl (a.k.a. Rachel), but despite the fact that both of them seem to possess real problems (e.g., poverty, alcoholism, animal abuse, dying), they are utterly journey-less and disposable characters. They possess no inner lives or agency, and only exist to assist Greg (Thomas Mann), a glib, unambitious, self-loathing high-school senior who maintains a “carefully cultivated invisibility,” in realizing his true potential. How many girls are going to have to die before this post-ironic slacker becomes slightly less of a complete jag-off?
As the film begins, Greg is cruising through high school under the radar, belonging to every social clique by belonging to none and avoiding the lunchtime minefield of the cafeteria by watching old movies with his childhood friend Earl. Greg’s bubble of emotional passivity is punctured when his overbearing mother forces him to befriend and console his classmate Rachel, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. Against his will, Greg finds himself forming a bond with Rachel, although she seems far more interested in fixing and healing this sarcastic shoegazer than in her own fading mortality (in true movie-disease fashion, Rachel only grows more radiantly beautiful the closer she creeps toward the grave).
Most films are designed to reinforce established gender and racial hierarchies (the Jurassic Park franchise alone, my God!), and in Me and Earl, death and disease are just rungs in the ladder of white male privilege. Leukemia schmeukemia, you guys, we need to save nice-guy Greg’s sagging self-esteem! Throughout the film, Greg interprets the benign pleasantness of cute girl Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) as a threat, finally decrying the desexualized politeness of all perky-breasted females as “an act of cruelty.” Any worries that I was mistakenly attributing the protagonist’s shallowness to the movie itself were erased by this scene, which is treated as a fist-pumping triumph.
Me and Earl lives under glass in a way that deliberately recalls the elaborately constructed dioramas of Wes Anderson, but Gomez-Rejon doesn’t create his own world, he just borrows from other people’s worlds. Greg and Earl have a long history of collaborating on deliberately bad movies, producing cheap, quasi-remakes of cinema classics (echoes of Max Fischer from Rushmore) with groan-pun titles like A Sockwork Orange and The Rad Shoes. Gomez-Rejon tries to do the same thing here, but he fails to fuse his references into something organic and original, which is why Me and Earl ultimately feels like footnotes in search of a text.