Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (2015) - Movie Review
You know the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, in keeping with our innate fear of that which is strange and/or different, this is something we still do, myself included. Namely, every so often, a film title will pop out and make me go “Um… no.” purely on how the name sounds. This isn’t even a matter of a name sounding weird; after all, I looked at The Human Centipede initially because it sounded so bloody weird. Rather, because some films invoke images of lame that will no doubt irrevocably paint my opinions. Today’s film, based on the title alone, had better be a cinematic remake of Earl Sweatshirt’s epaR or I will be colossally disappointed. Then again, this has gotten some rather lofty accolades since its initial release, and I am in the middle of my year-end catch-up of as many other releases from the past year as possible, so it was inevitable that I would look at this film at some point anyway regardless of my misconceptions.

The plot: Greg (Thomas Mann) is a rather gawky high school kid who does as best he can to make sure he stays on everyone’s good side. When not at school, he makes his own low-budget films at home with his ‘co-worker’ Earl (RJ Cyler). However, he soon gets roped into befriending a girl from his class Rachel (Olivia Cooke) at the behest of his mother (Connie Britton). As they connect through their own awkward graces, they create what can only be described as a genuine friendship.

One of the big reasons why I immediately thought “weak” when I saw both this film’s title and its accompanying trailer is because of three key words: Indie film quirkiness. Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite; even if you don’t know exactly what it is, you’ve encountered it at some point if you regularly watch movies. It’s a style of writing borne from attempting to better capture how life actually feels for teenagers. Usually, these teenagers are avid movie buffs themselves, characterised to draw heavy-handed parallels between how complicated real life is in comparison to what is shown in films. Now, I say all this not to highlight that the writing style is in it of itself bad, since it’s like any other mode of scripting that can work in the right hands. My problem with it comes from just how prevalent it is and how, with some very rare exceptions, what you see is what end up getting; no real surprises to be found along the way.

Is that the same case here? Well, it is and then it isn’t. We still get the usual character writing style in that, even with how bizarre they can be, they are all memorable in their own rights: The lush of a mother who is one martini away from re-enacting The Graduate, the most laidback and at the same time intense history teacher ever, the father whose attitude to films probably mirrors how I’m going to end up a couple decades from now, and so on. That said, these characters actually do stay within the realms of reality, in that character arcs don’t really exist because none of them are really at a stage in life where they would. How often do you see real-life adults go through true paradigm shifts in their lifetime? If it does happen, chances are you don’t have a camera at the ready to capture it happen in its entirety. This is definitely helped by the casting, particular that of Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke as the 'Me' and 'The Dying Girl' of the title, both of whom balance joviality with the darker reality of Rachel’s illness very well. Far better than Miss You Already, at the very least.

Something that puts this a bit further past the typical IFQ is that the main character’s taste in cinema reaches the point of making his own home movies. In terms of how this services the overall production, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the self-aware narration can get a bit much and the assurances from Greg via narration that Rachel will survive were definitely head-scratching. On the other hand, it helps give a nice visual aesthetic to the film as well as some really well-handled subtext about the nature of cinema itself. The film definitely has some motifs that, on the surface, seem a bit off: The use of chintzy Claymation, the "The part where…" title cards, the aforementioned narration; it gives a weird found footage feel by means of The Visit. By that, I mean that these are all production elements that real home movie makers would use, simply because it looks cool and they won’t usually have people chomping at the bit to critique their work. Unless they’re my friends, of course, because I can’t help myself. Or, if you’re studying at film school, you use them because it fulfils a certain visual aspect that you’ll be marked on, regardless of their purpose to the overall narrative.

As we see Greg and Earl make their films, we get a glimpse of something kind of amazing in its own right. Their gimmick is making films that are just a play-on-words of other film titles, kind of like if Colin Mochrie directed for The Asylum: A Sockwork Orange, 2:48pm Cowboy, Ate ½ (Of My Sandwich), A Box O’ Lips Wow; sometimes, the common hatred of puns has to submit to when a master is at work, in yet another weird instance of wishing that I could write this well myself. However, as they freely admit, the films themselves aren’t all that great; in fact, they’re rather embarrassing to the point where Greg initially doesn’t want anyone watching them aside from himself, his family and Earl. But, going back to The Asylum for just a moment, there’s integrity to be found even in that. Cinema is a remarkably powerful thing that isn’t exactly quantifiable by standard means; it’s the main reason I don’t even feign objectivity in these reviews. Even if the films that The Asylum usually put out are meant solely to cash in on a more popular blockbuster, that doesn’t mean that they are automatically worthless. Hell, in some cases, I’d argue that they end up better than the film they’re trying to rip off (Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies is legitimately good).

Here, even though these guys are working with rather minimal production values, their work still has merit to it. For a clear example of this, we have the scene where Greg unveils the film that he made just for Rachel which ends up creating a portrayal of this effect in duplicate. In-universe, the effect it has on Rachel is rather profound and shows a proper emotional connection being made, although it isn’t entirely clear what that connection is exactly. Out-of-universe, the scene itself is shown with no dialogue, either from the actors or from the film-within-the-film, with only the music and the visuals to give us a sense of what is happening. And yet, despite Greg’s own admissions that the film he made isn’t that good, there is another connection being made with the audience here through this scene. Maybe it’s as a result of knowing the emotional background of both artist and audience within the film or the production elements of either example just ‘working’ for whatever reason; in any case, this scene is freaking gorgeous. In fact, with how it succeeds in untampered visual storytelling, I almost wanted to go back and re-watch The Tree Of Life because I felt I had gained a new perspective on more visually-fixated films. Yes, this film is so good that it actively made me want to give Terence "Pretense-Rah" Malick another chance; such is the power of cinema.

As a depiction of a teenager in high school, alongside the pseudo-diplomatic stance Greg has towards the different cliques, this is remarkably deft. Throughout, Greg is shown being uncertain about what lies ahead after school, doing his best to stay on everyone’s good sides and even disregarding his school work since, let’s be honest, he’s busy with more important matters. I specify that last one because it’s kind of strange how rare this message is: High school doesn’t matter. At all. The enemies you make, the grades you’re given, the emotional scars you get from interactions with the opposite sex; none of it means anything outside of the school itself. All it does is show that you are capable of following what people tell you to do, something Greg does a little too well. Here, as things progress, the only real arc of the film continues as Greg starts to attain a higher sense of self and what he wants, rather than being forced to befriend Rachel because his mother insists that he do so (among other things).

All in all, as a continuation of the annoyingly-quipped "sick-lit" young adult adaptation trend, this is a damn good sit. The casting is great, the acting is pitch-perfect, the production values fit nicely with the tone of the film and the writing not only gives an accurate depiction of high school life, but also pays tribute to just how potent a force cinema can be.

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