Me and You and this Maddening Movie (but watch it ’til the end)
My initial impression of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a smugly self-aware, self-congratulatory play on genre went largely unchallenged for most of the film’s runtime, punctuated though it was by no few laughs and moments of genuine charm. The culprit is Greg (Thomas Mann), a senior at Pittsburgh Schenley High whose irony-laden commentary on everything from his social life to the larger movie itself seems to be the film’s point of identification. “This isn’t a romantic story,” is Greg’s go-to rejoinder to what he and Gomez-Rejon assume we must be feeling: that this tale of a teenage boy’s friendship with a teenage girl, newly diagnosed with leukemia, will devolve into a syrupy love story which exploits cancer as a tearjerking device. The line repeatedly pops up, as if the film wants to remind us how smart it is, beating us to the punch in recognizing the potential for cliché and then defiantly, triumphantly, steering clear of the road most traveled.
This voiceover device, though amusing and not unendearing the first time around, quickly grows annoying. It sets the tone for an entire film that feels at times ingratiatingly whimsical, from the Wes Anderson-style symmetry present in the mise-en-scène of the opening sequence to the students of Greg’s high school, whose antics evoke a mix of Anderson’s own Rushmore and the films of John Hughes.
More frustrating still is how the movie, in its self-diagnosed aversion to all things sentimental, seems incapable of following any narrative arc to its “logical” emotional end. The result is a film whose momentum feels jerky. Characters do one thing then abruptly switch to another activity. Stuff happens then is all but forgotten. Every time we expect an emotional “payoff” of some sort – maybe we’ve been brainwashed by the three-act Hollywood plot structure. Or maybe we just know what good storytelling looks like – the film seems to self-consciously refuse us relief from the emotional tension it has built up.
The structural problems of the film’s plotting hang over the movie’s more lovable elements, such as the charming movie buff fan service in the form of Greg’s pasttime: making home video send-ups to the classics of cinema with Earl (RJ Cyler), his “co-worker” and fellow high schooler. I love that these guys are cinephiles, and watching clips from their cheekily titled features (“2:48pm Cowboy,” “Pooping Tom,” etc.) is great fun. In the same vein of cinematic innovation, the film sometimes interjects claymation snippets to convey Greg’s feelings (namely, his paralyzing fear of attractive women), another nice touch that won me over. Despite these plusses, though, Me and Earl still seemed too insistently contrarian in its storytelling, too keen on being “quirky” and tooting its own horn to be completely enjoyable.
I was quite ready to dismiss the movie as an entertaining but unsuccessful experiment until the film’s penultimate scene arrived, during which Greg revealed that his voiceover commentary hadn’t been entirely truthful up until this point. Looking back, I realize that I’d never thought to consider the possibility of an unreliable narrator. That’s probably my fault, but the film is also partly to blame – Me and Earl savors Greg’s snarky worldview a bit too much to maintain the distance necessary for a full-fledged critical perspective on the character to develop; it wants to have its cake and eat it too.
But when the film does take a step back, it paints the compelling portrait of a guy who has wallowed in self-deprecation and cynicism all his life. The scenes where Greg is the topic of discussion rather than the omnipotent topic-raiser are the most telling- when the sick girl Rachel (Olivia Cooke) straight-up rejects Greg’s professed pessimism toward academic life, for instance, or when Earl traces the etymology of “co-worker” to Greg’s distaste for the word “friend,” suggesting deeper insecurities against which Greg is trying to protect himself.
In movies as well as books and television, we normally assume the narrator to be objectively recounting events after the fact. Me and Earl goes against this assumption by explicitly revealing that, as a storyteller, Greg is emotionally compromised and thus might not be completely transparent all the time.
This narrative maneuver is a stroke of brilliance because it suggests that Greg is still figuring things out even after the film has ended. For although his emotional collision with Rachel eventually changed his outlook on life, forcing him to experience compassion, he still has to nurse his wounds, confront his demons. In other words, he isn’t perfect, even after having “developed” as a character. Out of all the film’s attempts at genre subversion, this one is the wisest to actual human experience and thus the most radical.
This final shift in our perspective on Greg retroactively casts a positive light on the rest of the film, revealing Me and Earl to be a stinging but heartfelt chronicle of emotional maturation comparable to The Spectacular Now. But certain things are left open-ended. Like what Greg’s movie for Rachel is about. Or that maddening line “this isn’t a romantic story,” which, instead of being an obnoxious reminder of the film’s genre awareness, might signal an unforeseen depth to the movie. Indeed, we often repeat lies to ourselves to ignore truths we’d rather not confront, and Greg, who’s shown to be as prone to denial and repression as anyone, might be using that line on himself more than on us. Maybe he has fallen in love with the dying Rachel but is too devastated to acknowledge it. Maybe this is a romantic story, though perhaps not one with a happy ending.
All this is mere speculation, but it illustrates the kind of flowering of possibilities that comes with a good idea. The unreliable narrator, an ancient trope that is here repurposed to striking effect, is such an idea. It almost makes up for the problems of the film’s earlier scenes.