Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) got an interesting reception at the Sydney Film Festival. The crowd around me were rapturous. Tears flowed and raucous laughter was commonplace. So it was not surprise that the film took out the audience award. But amongst some of the more ‘hardcore’ festival attendees, the film was pretty much dismissed as a poorly written hipster piece.
Whilst I really like the film, I can respect the latter point of view. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did not particularly feel like a ‘festival’ film, particularly not a competition entrant, lacking the requisite toying with the form or serious exploration of theme that one expects. There is also little doubt that some aspects of the film scream indie charmer 101, especially early on. A voiceover, some claymation touches and Be Kind Rewind (2008) style remakes make the early sequences overly contrived. But the film quickly settles in and for the most part feels a lot less cloying. The film focuses on Greg and his friendship with the titular dying girl, Rachel. Greg’s mum (played by Connie Britten one half of the greatest cast parents in film history alongside Nick Offerman) forces Greg to reach out when Rachel contracts cancer. Their forced alliance gradually gives way to genuine friendship as Greg manages to provide Rachel with exactly what she needs. Earl is the main supporting character, played by RJ Cyler. Earl is Greg’s best mate who assists him to make a series of comedic, very low budget home movie remakes of arthouse classics. Perhaps more than anything it is this succession of amusingly titled remakes that make the film a good fit for the festival, putting the film’s love of cinema front and centre. The film was also a good fit for the 9:30am timeslot I saw it in. It is uproariously hilarious as well as emotionally resonant. The energy, whilst it shifted, was always there. Helped along by a score which I really dug, that turned out to be from the rather unlikely source of Brian Eno!
The film tells two stories, though both of them are from Greg’s point of view. The first is basically a teen film with him as the protagonist. He goes about trying to remain invisible and just survive the torrid high school years, whilst also attempting not to be too much of a self-centred asshole along the way. The second story is that of Rachel’s battle against illness, which contains the real emotional heart of the film, though still always seen from Greg’s perspective. Greg is a very sharply written character, the script and Thomas Mann’s performance combining to really nail the awkward jokiness of a teenager. The whole film is really well performed. The potential of Britten and Offerman as a couple is wasted a little, but they both do predictably very well with what they have. Cyler is really hilarious as Earl, one of the better best friend sidekicks for a while. But the real star is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Hers is a really genuine performance, especially in the big emotional moments. Whilst the script occasionally veers toward the manipulative, the performance never feels that way and she is the real heart of the film. The plot suffers when her character disappears for a stretch through the middle of the film, which is one of the few failings of the script. Actually the script also delivered my major issue with the film. I can’t go into specifics without giving away spoilers (can discuss in the comments if you’ve seen the film) but basically I think the script betrays the audience in a very major way. In the immediate aftermath of seeing the film, it actually kind of ruined the experience for me, though that has faded quite a bit and I reflect a lot more positively now.
Verdict: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the kind of film to see in a big crowd. Get swept up in the love of cinema it has and the feelings it draws out of people. Occasionally its indie charm crosses over into insincerity, but when avoiding that the film is a real joy. Pint of Kilkenny