I wish I liked this film more. It’s right in my wheelhouse: teenager coming-of-age flick, a plethora of cinephile references, quirkiness and wit, a strong indie vibe. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this past year. But for all its merits–and there are a few–its self-absorbed protagonist embodies all the bad traits (and none of the good) of Woody Allen. Only, imagine Allen as a teenager. In Pittsburgh. Sure, that character would make for some intellectual and funny scenarios, but he certainly wouldn’t be someone worth celebrating. Which is the problem I have with this film. I agree with the observation of film critic Scott Tobias: “Gomez-Rejon has erected a gleaming shrine to adolescent narcissism.”
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg Gaines on his senior year of high school, a pivotal year both due to his impending graduation and a new friendship he’s struck up with Olivia, a fellow classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. The “Earl” in the title is Greg’s only friend; Greg calls him his “co-worker” as they make goofy rip-off movies of Criterion Collection films with middle-schooler-esque titles (e.g. “The 400 Bros,” “The Turd Man,” “Senior Citizen Kane”). Greg’s strategy for surviving high school is to be a sort of social Switzerland, having shallow-yet-pleasant connections with each adolescent clique in order to stay relatively anonymous. His evaluation of the various high school social clusters is on par with The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls. All of the adults in this film are serious characters themselves, from Greg’s intellectual and bizarre parents, to Olivia’s alcoholic cougar mother, to the tattoo-laden history teacher who allows Greg and Earl to eat their lunch in his office. Greg keeps all these people at a distance, either due to his personal insecurities, or perhaps a past social wound we’re never made privy to. Greg is self-effacing and anxious, but he’s also a loveable goofball teenager, and his efforts to cheer up Olivia are the heart of the film.
I bet the people who liked Birdman (I didn’t) would enjoy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Both feature a hopelessly narcissistic/neurotic artist protagonist who believes he is The Gift To The World if only everyone could just *understand* him. I have a strong radar (and disgust) for ego disguised as virtue in protagonists, and Greg Gaines was setting off my mental alarms. I left the theater unconvinced that Greg had truly gained better self-awareness or wisdom about human relationships, despite this being the clear thesis of the film. We’re made to think that Greg has learned something, that he’s moved from selfishness towards empathy, but while his relational horizons may have expanded, he still looks at others through the lens of self, i.e. who is this person for me? Greg experiences what Martin Buber calls I and It relationships, where a person views others as objects, tools, things to be encountered and either loved or discarded. The healthier alternative is the I and Thou relationship, treating a human being as subject with their own stories, goals, dreams, a real person. Greg never fully embraces the Thou of others. The frustration I have with Greg is that he’s a well-educated white male with two caring parents who are still married, yet he clearly believes himself to be the victim in life’s cruel joke. Sure, Earl is a young black man living in a poorer part of town, with family members prone to violence (we never really see Earl’s home life, as that’s not vital to the narrator, i.e. Greg). Sure, Olivia is, y’know, dying of cancer. But this story is all about Greg, his wounds and dreams, his burden to bear in this life. I tire quickly of characters—and real-life people—who are always the victim and cannot see past their own story in order to truly listen and be present with others.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in the same vein as Juno with its offbeat indie teenagers experiencing difficult ethical situations. Both are humorous, smart, and have fascinating characters. But I’d take Juno MacGuff over Greg Gaines any day. That girl’s got spunk and integrity. Greg only has A Sockwork Orange and himself.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2582496/