I am not the biggest fan of young adult films. They are either too self-conscious and unrelenting in their attempts to be smart, they come off as arrogant, or they are just too intelligent for their own good, or they are just unbearably cliched. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is different to a lot of young adult films, but it doesn’t quite escape the trap that a lot of the others fall into, but it is still a very good film.
First of all, let me start off by praising Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for its merits. It has an absolutely brilliant first act and a wonderful second act. The first hour is powerful and hilarious, and of course very touching. We are presented with these characters – mainly Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular “me”) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke, the “dying girl”) that aren’t unlikable or smarmy or arrogant or even vaguely unpleasant, which is a problem with most young adult films. It almost seemed that within that first hour, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was trying to be referential in its attempts to be distant from all other films in this genre, and even poked some subtle jabs at other young adult films. I honestly felt as if I was watching something completely unique and a revolutionary overhauling of the genre…
…but then the third act happened, where Me and Earl and the Dying Girl descended into the pits of other young adult films, and sadly became a film filled to the brim with the cliches of the genre. It was disappointing to see the third act be so conventional, and the worst part was I could tick off, one by one, each of the young adult conventions, which is disappointing, because it could’ve been so different and keep the same brilliance throughout. For some reason, the same depressing, rushed narrative that occurs in nearly all young adult films happened here, and I pray someone is able to make a young adult film that doesn’t resort to this kind of pitiful melancholic atmosphere, because then we can experience something wonderful.
In the first act we are introduced to all the major characters – Greg, Greg’s quirky parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton), Rachel, Earl, Rachel’s strange mother (Molly Shannon) and the stoner History teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). In that first act, I honestly thought we have such a strong cast with everyone giving magnificent performances that contribute to the film and make it as brilliant as it is – a small film like this depends on the writing and the performances to be successful. Then we got to the second act, and then it started to fall apart. Earl, who is one of the titular characters, never once gets even a fraction of something interesting to do, and probably gives the most uninspired performance of the year – only near the end do we get some briefly pleasant scenes involving him. Connie Britton disappears halfway through the film and only reappears near the end, and Mr. McCarthy is set up to be quite an interesting character, but does nothing either. The character development in this film was utterly disappointing, and the only characters that are given anything interesting to do are Greg and Rachel, and being the focus of the film, it has to be. However, I must praise Nick Offerman for being a scene-stealer of note and being responsible for the funniest moments in this film. His performance as Greg’s sociologist father isn’t groundbreaking or impactful, but it did make this film a lot better than many others, mainly because this is the one young adult film where adults aren’t presented as all being humorless, boring characters. The characterization of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was very poor, and could’ve been developed so much more and with much better attention to the secondary characters.
Now I know I am notorious for banging on about running times of films – and a film like this shouldn’t go over the conventional ninety-minute running time. However, this film could’ve benefitted from an extra twenty minutes or so, because the first two acts were utterly charming and lovely, and I wouldn’t have trimmed them down at all, but the third act was rushed and too frantic, and it is perfectly fine for a film to show some emotion and give the audience some time to feel emotion as well – but honestly, giving the audience some time to breathe and understand what is going on is essential. It is one facet of making a film like this that The Fault in Our Stars (an otherwise deeply flawed film), succeeds brilliantly at, while Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fails to do. It is just one emotional scene after the other, and it actually damages the experience of this film, because there is no room for reflection or introspection to happen. What many filmmakers don’t understand is that the audience is an instrument to their film just as much as the writing, directing and acting. If you’ve ever sat in a cinema and seen a particularly moving moment, you can feel it in that cinema. Not allowing the audience to feel and come to terms with the emotions that you are trying to make us feel just makes you film that dreaded word that I have tried to avoid using, but I have to…schmaltzy. In essence, the audience is being shown something emotional and told to feel emotional, instead of being allowed to arrive there by ourselves on our own terms. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who is a great director who has done great work in American Horror Story, has been able to create moods and atmospheres in his other directorial efforts, which makes the forceful tone in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl even more disappointing. Whether that is in Gomez-Rejon’s decision as a director, or maybe it lies in the faults of the script, but this film didn’t achieve what it wanted to, which is utterly disappointing, because this could have been a strikingly emotional film, but it turned out to be falsely melancholic.
However, not all is lost! I will admit that I loved this film because it was simply a love letter to cinema, in the fact that the lead characters enjoy making parodies of famous films. The montage of amateur films they made was the highlight of the film for me, and every time the characters made a new parody, it made the film instantly better. What is even more exciting about this aspect of the film is that it is genuinely funny – they don’t choose popular films to appease the mainstream, nor do they arrogantly choose to appeal to hipsters with a sense of irony. The films chosen to be parodied are both popular enough to be recognized by everyone, but with some very obscure films in there to make the cinephiles in the audience squeal with delight. On this alone, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was absolutely brilliant, and deserves praise. Honestly, if the entire third act was erased and instead replaced with the three main characters making more parody films, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would’ve been a masterpiece.
It is disappointing to give this film such a critical review, but understand that I have to do it because I saw mountains of potential in this film. It could’ve easily become one of my favorites of the year, and it still might. However, the more I think about it, and the more I attempt to adore it, the more I hate the third act and how it lets the entire film down. Poor characterization and the decision to only care about two of the three titular characters was also a major flaw, and some more attention to the secondary characters would’ve been fantastic. However, as much as I criticize it, I can’t deny that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is better than probably all young adult films (I’d rank it just below The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
The problem is because of its flaws, it will always be seen as a young adult film, and will probably never be able to breakthrough to join Submarine as the film that isn’t a young adult film in genre, but just features teenagers in the lead roles. Submarine is very lonely up there, because no film has ever come close to reaching that point, and the most disappointing fact is that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl almost got there, it really did. It was just disappointing that it couldn’t overcome its flaws. However, it is still better than almost all other young adult films, so for that, it deserves praise. Its not a bad film at all, just flawed and it could’ve lived up to its potential.