This week I noticed a DVD copy of Me and Earl and The Dying Girl show up on my school’s library shelf. I remember watching it at a Lost Weekend and liking it quite a bit. I even wrote about it a bit. It occurred to me that I might want to watch it again. I remembered the crescendo of the film and wondered at how visually beautiful it was. So well orchestrated. I typically don’t watch a film a second time. It’s not a matter of policy, it’s just that there are so many movies that need watching, why go back?
I reached out to Andy Newman (writer, film maker, former Stephen Kilpatrick co-worker) and asked if had seen the movie. I seek out his opinions and value them. Turns out, he didn’t like this movie. It seemed to feel that the film didn’t shape up to a potential that it had. It’s hard to express full thoughts in 140 characters, so he pointed me to a review that he hedged as being “harsh”, but otherwise hit up the negative points of the movie. I think that “harsh” was a bit of a understatement. It smacks of the kind of criticism that can only be dealt from the safety of distance from the criticized.
But, I’m not writing a review of a review.
Hopefully unneeded spoiler alert warning
I went into my second watch of the film carrying Andy’s more tempered criticisms with me. Maybe it is a crap film, and I just happened to see it in the middle of a film festival where I’m in the mood for the magical and I was in a forgiving mood. Let’s look at it again.
The first complaint is this: the main character is a unlikeable person whose story orbits the slow dying of a supporting character.
Did you happen to see My Girl? It operated on the same premise, but I don’t know if we’d find the same complaint. Main character was flawed and their character arc depended on the death of a supporting character.
Let me shift gears here and talk about what I liked.
The main character was unlikeable. The protagonist of a story doesn’t need to be likable, but it does need to be identifiable. Buying in an audience is very hard without reliability. If someone watches this film and they had managed to make it through high school without feeling awkward, unable to find the right place to fit in, or resenting their parents, then this might not be the film for them.
The film tackles the high school movie tropes immediately, head on, and at a overt meta level. The introductory scenes to the movie set the setting, illustrate that the protagonist puts all of his effort into being as minimally offensive to everyone else which shows character trait, motivations, and lays groundwork for later, and cleverly lets the audience know that the creative energy behind the high school film knows that it’s a high school film.
The narrative voice. The protagonist also serves as the narrator for the film, which adds an element of detachment, which gives a feeling of emotional distance from the his own life and his own emotions. I feel that this was a very deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers. It wasn’t someone else’s voice like The Wonder Years. It was a voice of the protagonist detached from timeline and events and emotions.
Except when it wasn’t.
I remember the immediate moment when the film, went from good to great for me on the first watch through. During the course of the movie, the narrative voice tells the audience twice, “The girl is sick, but don’t worry, she’s not going to die. I promise you.” Then the moment I realized that promise from on screen fictional character to the real life audience was a lie. The lie itself though was one that in that narration, was it told to us or to the character that spoke it? Don’t we do the same thing when things are looking bad? “She’ll turn the corner,” and, nah, we knew she wouldn’t. But we say it all the same, as if speaking those words will make something different.
Earl. Greg (the main character, if it wasn’t mentioned before) is constantly evasive, irritatingly self deprecating, and puts more effort into hiding from life than it would take to face it. Maybe. Earl, serves as a foil to that. His role in the film is to speak the truth about Greg’s character and call him out for his nonsense. He is one of those rare characters that seem to have been cut from reality and unhappily find themselves in the cinematic world. He speaks the sense that the audience wishes they could shout to Greg and he focuses on the things that we’d hope a teenager would want to do, instead of needlessly complicating their life and spinning everything around them into such a way that life and the universe spins on their axis. Like getting ice cream.
That scene where Rachel tells Greg she’s going to stop chemo treatments. This is the scene where Greg becomes painfully self-centric and is oblivious as to how he is doing so, seemingly until the last moment of the scene. The execution of the scene is fantastic, as it’s a pretty simple, but long shot, and it serves up an honest scene even at the cost of likability to either of the characters involved. She announces that she’s ceasing the only thing that could make her cancer stop, and he turns it around as if she’s choosing to make him feel bad about it. Wouldn’t we feel the same in the moment?
The crescendo. I mentioned that before, didn’t I? If you made it this far, you’ve seen the movie, or don’t care about the spoilers, but it’s Rachel’s death. The story told by the movie couldn’t come to peak at any other place. The audience knows this. It’s a promise made by a dozen other films. It’s a promise made by television shows. It’s a promise that was made on the other side of the proscenium arch by the Greeks. But, not this film, we were promised that she wouldn’t die. More than once. We were promised. But we know, by the time we get there, all the signs point to her death, we know it’s coming, we know we were lied to and we know it’s a lie we’ve heard before, and a lie that we’ll tell other people.
The crescendo builds with a song by Brian Eno, who can score the final scene to this comedy. Or is it a tragedy? Or maybe it’s a comedy, and then it becomes a tragedy that we keep calling a comedy because we just don’t want it to be a tragedy. But, that self-deception can’t hold on until it’s just is what it is.
The metaphors used in this movie fall in that beautiful, precise space between subtle and overt, and explore th