06/12/15 8:00am
06/12/2015 8:00 AM |
image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Opens June 12

As novel-turned-movie The Fault in Our Stars sought to sensitively tweak the cancer narrative by lacing tragedy with irreverent dialogue, so novel-turned-film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl must sensitively tweak The Fault in Our Stars. This teenage romance with a cancer patient boasts Werner Herzog jokes, subs Brian Eno music in for Charlie XCX and Ed Sheeran, and doesn’t even have romance in it; in other words, you’ve been out-hipstered, John Green. It’s not a fair comparison in the sense that the two novels were released nearly simultaneously, not in reaction to each other; it’s sort of a fair comparison in that the film version of Me and Earl is coming out close to exactly one year after the film of Fault, and both movies were filmed in Pittsburgh, which might develop a complex if filmmakers don’t stop shooting their cancer stories there.

As adapted from the Jesse Andrews novel by Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Me and Earl certainly wins on style points. Greg (Thomas Mann), in a framing device you may hope against hope does not turn out to be a college application essay, lays out his high school philosophy—be friendly with everyone, friends with no one—as Gomez-Rejon swoops through lunchrooms and into elaborate overhead shots of hallways. When Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) hears that Rachel (Olivia Cooke), one of his many acquaintances, has been diagnosed with leukemia, she insists that he spend time with her, and his initial phonecall (and his mom’s ensuing badgering) is shot in a bravura single take that weaves through the rooms of Greg’s home. He acquiesces to his mom’s demands, and Greg’s early scenes with Rachel are shot with camera tricks to make Rachel’s bedroom—and, specifically, the gulf between the two characters—look massive. As their friendship becomes real (and “doomed,” as subtitles refer to it), they get closer in the frame.

In general, Gomez-Rejon’s careful compositions and camera swivels recall Wes Anderson, while Greg’s hobby of producing low-budget, handmade imitations of Criterion-grade movies with his “coworker” Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler) is very Michel Gondry (there’s even some stop-motion footage). Gomez-Rejon’s style is ostentatious in ways those directors aren’t; Anderson and Gondry create worlds around their style, while Gomez-Rejon sometimes feels like he’s imposing his (or other filmmakers’) style on, well, Pittsburgh. Sometimes he searches so hard for the most interesting, striking camera angle that the cutting between those angles disrupts his own scenes—an effect strangely not so different than the restless coverage-cutting that undermined the film of Fault. For the most part, though, it’s refreshing to watch a movie about teenagers that has visual energy that’s more clever music video than generic hyperactive MTV. It’s not all tricks, either: A crucial late-movie disagreement between Greg and Rachel plays out in tense stationary shot; the style stands still, unwilling to release us into whimsy. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who shot the similarly showy and stylistically ambitious Stoker, gives the visuals a bravura confidence. If it’s all a bit blatant and readable, well, maybe check out Amour, I guess.

Because the movie’s style is noticeable, I can already hear the grumbles about Me and Earl: twee, precious, hipster, too much style. A lot of this amounts to: who do they think they are, liking what I like and thinking that I like it too? Maybe I’m an easy mark, but I liked the Herzog jokes and offhand reference to Pussy Riot and, moreover, the movie’s believably precocious sense of humor; the Andrews screenplay doesn’t limit itself to references, or even to his own prose. This is a funny, affectionate movie, especially when Mann and Cyler are paired as a comic duo. It’s Cooke’s Dying Girl who gets the short shrift—or at least the medium shrift, after Cooke’s performance enlivens her reaction shots. Who is Rachel, besides sweet, smart, and decent? (Not small qualities, but they can get lost when the sweet, smart, decent person must spend much of the movie sick and bedridden.) Some of her inner life remains intentionally hidden for well-rendered thematic reasons, but there’s no reason not to give poor Cooke a few more laugh lines.

Though realistic, the focus of Me and Earl threatens to the story into self-actualization for a sorta-teenager (his melty-looking sadface does its best to disguise Mann’s twentysomething status) who learns a lot from his friend having cancer. If a slightly solipsistic bent keeps the movie from unleashing the full Fault-level flood of tears, Gomez-Rejon also gets at smart, sometimes complex ideas about how grief fits into life without too much wallowing. It will probably appeal to plenty of smart, awkward, and/or precocious teenagers. Some people really hate that.