Thursday, June 18, 2015

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

living in the cracks
by Douglas Messerli 

Jesse Andrews (screenplay, based on his fiction), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (director) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl / 2015

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is charmingly quirky in numerous ways, even while that same charm also helps, at times, to make it coy, cute, and totally improbable. But as a teenage fantasy, with youthful angst and alienation at its base, it nonetheless works.

Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a kind of inscrutable loser, a kid so uncomfortable in his lanky body with a long, slightly undefined face (he describes it as a “chipmunk” expression) that he finds it difficult even to engage with other human beings—describing even his best friend, Earl (Ronald Cyler II), as a co-worker, and managing to slip between the cracks of the dozens of warring social groups who gather through shared identities at his high school, by posing as a mildly sympathetic but uninvolved passerby. The most remarkable thing about Greg is that he had managed to develop his close friendship with a Black boy from another socio-economic world from childhood on, and both he and Earl share an unlikely interest in classic films. Together the two manage to entertain themselves and creatively bond by making sophomoric versions of the films they enjoy, such as The Sockwork Orange, Senior Citizen Kane, and Monorash (Rashomon). Their somewhat witty, but mostly coarsely made films reflect Greg’s, and presumably Earl’s, perspectives on the human race; rather than work within the confines of the world they enjoy, they work to satirize it and mock. In short, Greg and his cohort survive by living in and through the “cracks,” the spaces between the surrounding individuals and through the jokes they make about what they observe and perceive.

      Hanging out during lunch at a popular history teacher’s office (Jon Bernthal), the two boys manage to isolate themselves from the other students which accident has determined they spend so many years of their lives. Greg has pretty much succeeded in hiding from all others until one day his mother and father (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) enter the private domain of his bedroom and, through gentle implications and even prayer, announce that fellow schoolmate, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with cancer. Predictably, Greg hardly knows Rachel (the only real relationship is between his mother and Rachel’s mom), but that does not prevent his mother from insisting that he visit her. Even had he been close to Rachel, Greg might clearly have felt awkward having to attend to the ill classmate, but even she immediately perceives his attentions to her as enforced, and Rachel dismisses him from her presence. Admitting the situation, he begs her to let him spend at least part of the day with her just to prevent any further harangues from his mother, which she permits. After a discomforting period of adjustment, and numerous insensitive guffaws on Greg’s part (for example, to escape the platitudinous sorrows of her fellow school friends, she pretends she is dying at that very moment), the two actually discover that they share some of the same teenage frustrations, and before long they have struck up—apparently for the first time for Greg—a true, if still clumsy friendship.

     The relationship between the two is deepened, moreover, when Greg introduces her to Earl, a far more honest and direct-speaking boy, who shares they secret of filmmaking and even lends Rachel some of their works. Although Greg feels slightly betrayed by the revelation, he grows even closer to the now seriously ill Rachel when he discovers that watching them gives her some joy. For her part, she insists Greg stop feeling sorry for himself and recognize his own self-hatred, and, most importantly, that he begin planning for the future by applying to college. When he does, he is immediately accepted at the local Pittsburgh University.
     The bond between the two does not go unnoticed between the two, and forces Rachel’s friends (which Greg describes as a subgroup, the Jewish Girls) to attend to him. That, in turn results in others (the Goths, the violent white rapper, etc) to also take notice, and before long he can no longer maintain his disappearing act.. When one of the most attractive girls in the school, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), a close friend of Rachel’s, discovers the two boys filming, she suggests they make a film for Rachel. Although Greg makes the attempt, a film that actually might attempt to say something stymies them both;  working with a subject instead of working against it demonstrates, quite clearly, that neither he nor Earl are as creative as they have felt themselves to be.
     The chemotherapy Rachel suffers and her loss of hair begin to depress and literally pain Rachel more that she has imagined, and despite Greg’s visits, she becomes more and more withdrawn, finally determining to abandon treatments. It is now Greg who tries to reengage her with life, and for the first time he actually shows himself as having deep emotions to which he had never before admitted. When she reveals that she even knows about his attempt to make a movie for her, Earl having mentioned it, Greg now grows furious, feeling betrayed not only by Rachel’s refusal to keep up her struggled but by Earl’s casual revelation of what was to have been a secret.

     After a brief physical encounter, the two boys break up as friends—and coworkers—even though Earl attempts ameliorate by sending Greg a tape that sympathetically speaks of his own feelings for Rachel. At school, social group tensions erupt in violence, as Greg is attacked by the crazed school rapper. Earl comes to Greg’s defense, and saves him from being beaten, but all those involved are expelled. Indeed, Greg, having spent no time at all these past few months on schoolwork, discovers that his early entry to the university has now been rescinded on account of his bad grades.
     Out of sympathy, Rachel’s friend Madison invites Gregg to take her to the school prom, intimidating him into acceptance. The very next scene shows Greg dressed in a tuxedo, a costume he has earlier in the film insisted he would never wear, on his way to the prom. He orders the limo driver, however, to take him to an address that turns out to be Rachel’s hospice, where she lays dying. Placing the corsage upon her arm, he lies down in bed with her to watch the film for her which he has finally finished.

      We never see most of the film, for after a few moments of watching it, she falls into a coma; but we realize that for the first time in his life, instead of mocking the creations of others, Greg has created a kind of abstract expression of his and Rachel’s emotional relationship. Despite the fact that the ongoing narrative voice has twice told us that the “girl” of the film does not really die, Rachel does. 
     At the funeral, held in Rachel’s house, he slips into her room to discover that she has not only written to the University to explain to them why Greg has done so poorly in school, but to beg them to reconsider their decision. Opening the book of university listings he has given to her, he discovers that she too is a kind of artist, a collagist of sorts, who, working with scissors has cut out the contents of many of her books to create scenes representing the various conservations she has had with Greg over the months. He too, accordingly, has become a subject for art. The wallpaper representing what he has simply perceived as a series of trees, he now discovers has discreetly been collaged over with small squirrels (Rachel’s favorite animal) let loose upon the landscape. She, like Greg, has cut and pasted images of life to create her art.
      Reuniting with Earl, Greg has discovered that he can make friends, and that while his fears of friendship may indeed have resulted in pain, his relationships with others has also rewarded him the marvel of another individual’s inner life. Greg is finally a regular guy instead of a walking ghost.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2015

1 comment: