‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ gives new life to the genre
Erin McAuliffe | Wednesday, September 9, 2015
As one might guess from the lack of floridness in the title, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was not trying to be another cutesy, feel-good romance: the point was reiterated many a time in a “(500) Days of Summer”-esque way by the fumblesome protagonist Greg. The film succeeded in delivering a poignant story through naivety and cleverness instead of clichés and heartstring manipulations.
“I never commit to anything that’s not casual” was a line prevalent to both Greg and the plot. The message epitomized his approach to high school, specifically friendships and the hierarchy of their groupings. There is the classic rundown of high school echelons — á la John Hughes — by Greg, who declares himself an acquaintance of all and friend of none.
Greg thinks he can fit into any group — and in ways he does — but his lack of desire to commit to any particular one hits on the theme of complacency as the enemy. He isn’t looking to box himself into a group for a safety net of friends. He would rather stay true to himself even if that means eating lunch in the office of his “super chill” history teacher. In this respect, he is remarkably non-complacent for a teen boy, and the only time we see routine truly develop in his life is when he starts to visit Rachel everyday. However, this comes with consequences as that same noncommittal attitude has him leaning towards forgoing college and likewise heading towards a tranquil lifestyle. In the same respect, when he is ready to commit to college, it is the routine that threatens the prospect.
The only thing Greg is not casual about is film. He and Earl have produced over 40 short films, all based on wordplay of other films’ titles. Admittedly, this makes for bad, not-to-be-taken-seriously cinema; however, it is how Greg stays true to his noncommittal nature while remaining dedicated to his art. Greg takes a comedic approach to both film and interactions, which is also why he fumbles after undertaking the task of creating a film for Rachel. Although Rachel appreciates Greg and Earl’s sense of humor and their existing films, Greg realizes any film he makes for her would need to touch on more than puns.
A high school-focused movie with an illness plot line (“Fault in Our Stars,” “My Sister’s Keeper”) wouldn’t jump to mind as a platform for experimental cinema techniques — however, Greg’s own passion and talents for film drive the movie into exciting territory. There are cuts to his own films when he mentions them and there is a recurring clay-mation, stop-motion sequence every time Madison, his beautiful classmate, enters the scene. The sequence depicts a moose stomping on a chipmunk as Greg describes Madison’s every fleeting touch and smile as the moose that crushes his chipmunk self.
Greg’s use of irony and stop-motion in his own movies combined with the film’s centered and rolling shots, use of white typeface at the bottom of the screen to introduce the different parts of the movie (most of these are focused around Greg’s friendship with Rachel, e.g. “The Part Where I Meet The Dying Girl” or “Day One of Doomed Friendship”) are, of course, to be related to Wes Anderson. The choice makes sense; many young creatives — myself included — look to his stylings for aesthetic inspiration and new techniques.
A standout, original method used was the rotation of shots to mirror the way the character in the scene felt turned-around or confused. The technique, although dizzying, worked in the film’s favor to confuse the audience in empathy.
Greg’s father introduced Earl and him to foreign cinema at a young age. We see the three watching films together in a scene that emulates the onscreen tableaus and presents their soundtracks as diegetic. This way, the films translate to life, representative of Greg’s commitment to his craft. Quite literally, we see the inspiration Greg draws from translated to the screen.
The film’s characters, although likable, were a bit underdeveloped. Greg was the classic “awkward — but not really because only in an alternative, cool way and he was attractive.” His character was most developed, leaving his best friend Earl’s character to become the overly stereotypical “boy from the hood.” Although Earl has some of the most thought-provoking realizations in the film — confronting Greg about his selfishness when he claims he can’t believe “how annoying Rachel is being about going off her meds” — these insights are overshadowed by references to women’s breasts and the fact that he accidentally gets them both high.
Rachel was amiable: You appreciated her humor and felt her frustration. However, we didn’t progress much past her appreciation for Greg’s films and updates on her illness. Nonetheless, this was an intriguing strength of the film. The reference to Rachel as “the dying girl” in the title foreshadowed the idea that no matter how hard we try to get know someone deeply and look past their disabilities and faults, sometimes we slip into defining them by what we attempt to ignore.
A key message, delivered by Greg’s history teacher, was that sometimes we can always discover more about people. One of the most moving scenes showed Greg going through Rachel’s room to discover what her mother meant when she told him Rachel “loved scissors.” It is in this moment that we realize Greg, first motivated to befriend Rachel by request of his mother, hasn’t come to know Rachel that deeply either.
Greg describes his own films as: “weird, violent, confusing and meaningless,” a parallel to how he views himself: he thinks he’s weird, he partakes in angsty bouts of teenage boy violence, he is confused by his and Rachel’s roles in each other’s lives, and he attempts to convince himself there is no meaning in things as “he only partakes in the casual.”
It is certain that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” accomplished meaning in an imaginative, unique approach to a clichéd plot.