Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ★★½

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most hipster films yet made, and sure to be very divisive as a result. It is so self-consciously hip that it is at times unbearable. It doesn’t have a unique aesthetic to warrant the drowning in style and reference, as well constructed as it is. As a film nerd I love a lot of the ingredients (and there are a lot) that are used to tell this coming-of-age/teen cancer story – classic films, the music of Talk Talk and Brian Eno, Ron Swanson – but this was so drenched in references to aid the swallow that the film ends up feeling as fake as the parody films made by the self-centred protagonist.

Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior trying hard to blend in and remain anonymous. While he would be defined as a geek he declares that he doesn’t belong to any group and just wants to get through the year and leave everyone behind. He spends most of his free time making parody films with “co-worker” Earl (R. J Cyler), finding influence in classics such as Peeping Tom and Midnight Cowboy, and his room is adorned with movie memorabilia and cast-aside film ideas. I related with, to a point. When his mother insists that he spend time with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with cancer, he is initially put out. But as they bond he starts to realise just how essential close friendships are on the cusp of adulthood, and Rachel helps him to discover a way to utilise his significant creativity and skill for a real purpose.

The story should have been very moving, but the tragedy of Rachel’s situation is kept at a distance because we experience it through Glen’s ho-hum attitude. His manipulative diary entry-esque narration (which we learn makes up his new college application, yawn) is also trying very hard to catch us off guard with our emotions at the end. It becomes a bit of a selfish woe-is-me tale, because as a result of Glen spending so much time with Rachel he begins to flunk school, which places his college position at risk. His friendship with Earl is also tested and his carefully cultivated anonymity is threatened. He begins to resent ever meeting Rachel. The script rarely gets out of Glen’s head, and that makes it difficult to find an emotional connection to Rachel.

Also, Earl is woefully short-changed in this film. He is a black guy from a bad part of the neighbourhood. That’s pretty much the extent of it. He has an intimidating brother, with an intimidating dog, and he often provides the voice of reason for Glen. Cyler does a great job, but it is disappointing that he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Then there are the fake characters. Glen’s father (played by Nick Offerman) is such a lazy hipster version of Offerman’s character from Parks and Recreation, and Offerman could sleepwalk through this role. And he does. Glen’s mother (Connie Britton) also does unbelievable things. She forces him to talk to this girl he doesn’t know very well, and for some unexplained reason has no other friends. Imagine the awkwardness you would set up for your son. Seems a very irresponsible piece of parenting. Then, months later when he is flunking out of school because of the time devoted to this same girl, you give him a lecture about his priorities. The sequences in the office of their uber-cool, heavily-tattooed, noodle-slurping history teacher Mr McCarthy (played with great charisma by Jon Bernthal), where Glen and Earl hang out watching films, are some of the funniest in the film. But they would never happen.

I am starting to mistrust the Sundance Grand Jury/Audience Award double because I wasn’t keen on comparative 2014 winner Whiplash either. The film was also a favourite here in Sydney, winning the Audience Award for Feature Films. I get the appeal – it is about the bonds of friendship and how the teenage consideration of mortality can really change who you are. I appreciated that the love for film is in its veins, but every time it did something cute and nerdy it also threw up some very problematic that I wanted to swat into the stands.

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