Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the big winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, nabbing both the Grand Prize and the Audience Prize. Indeed, there is a lot to like about it and I give it a solid thumbs up. I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.
I think the problem lies in the direction, by Alfonso Gomez-Ramon. He tries almost every directorial trick in the book, ranging from animation to tilting the camera sideways to whirling the camera 360 degrees to making images out of focus. The script, by Jesse Andrews based on his novel, is a winner, but Gomez-Ramon doesn’t seem to trust it. It’s as if he’s looking over his shoulder at the audience, willing us to like the film (and him).
The story concerns a high-school senior (Thomas Mann) whose strategy for surviving is to get along with all groups but not belong to any single group, thus remaining as invisible as possible. He also avoids the cafeteria, depicted as a jungle of sorts, and instead eats lunch in his history teacher’s office with his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler). But he doesn’t call Earl his friend, he refers to him as a “co-worker.” Earl explains this later in the film, while both boys are high.
The plot is moved forward rather dubiously when a girl in Mann’s school (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia. Mann’s mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go over to her house to hang out with her. Now, without this there’s no movie, but I wonder at the whole thing, since Cooke is a girl who has friends and shouldn’t need just about strangers to come hang out with her.
A friendship forms between the two, and meanwhile she is shown the films that Mann and Cyler make. They remake classic films in a very stupid way, and snippets of these films are used as transitions, and are often quite funny (I laughed out loud seeing Cyler in a cowboy hat in “2:48 Cowboy.”) A classmate that Mann has a crush on asks him to make a film for Cooke.
The characters here are all very likable. I include Nick Offerman as Mann’s father, who is a college professor that doesn’t seem to teach any classes. He is always in a bathrobe, introducing the boys to exotic foods, like cuttlefish and andouille rabbit sausage. Almost everything Cyler says is funny, although at times, since he is an inner-city black kid, he’s kind of treated like the exotic other.
But the film just tries too hard. There’s a shot late in the film in which Mann is in Cooke’s room, and it is milked for every maudlin moment that it can get. Though the boys’ movies are funny, at times they weigh things down, and when we finally see the movie made for Cooke, it isn’t all that great (this is a common problem in films or plays–when someone is creating something, it often is no great shakes, which lets down the whole enterprise).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a lot of heart, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not the great film that some are heralding it as.
My grade for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: B.