We Failed This Film: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

How We Failed It

Not many films run the gauntlet of being adored at premiere and then derided upon wide release. Not many films experience the highest highs of praise and the lowest lows of criticism. However, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2015 film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl experienced both polar sides of the dichotomy of film reception, and ended up getting buried by the negative.

Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who has gone through high school successfully anonymous, almost having it down to a science with how he can glide clique to clique unattached. In his spare time he makes quirky spoof films of classics like “The 400 Bros” and “Pooping Tom” with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he will only refer to as his “co-worker”. When schoolmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) falls ill with leukemia, Greg’s mom forces him to spend time with Rachel in order to boost her spirits. Greg and Rachel form an unlikely friendship, forcing Greg to reevaluate himself and his relationship to others.

After rapturous reception at Sundance, Fox Searchlight purchased the film for a then Sundance record $12 million. Immediately, big expectations were set for the film’s wide release just based on that number. Given it’s parallels with the previous year’s box office smash The Fault in Our Stars, people expected a big payday with this film. Imagine if somebody told you “We got this film, it’s like The Fault in Our Stars except BETTER.” You’d think they’d have a hit on their hands, right? I certainly thought it would hit with large audiences. With a budget of $8 million plus the sale price, the film would need to vault $20 million to reach profitability. It did not, only grossing $6 million domestically, but it is far from the film’s fault.

After spending so much in acquiring a film, Fox Searchlight strangely did quite a bit to not promote the film or allow large audiences to see it. It only played in a limited 870 theaters during its widest release. It just makes no sense. If you don’t give people the opportunity to see your film, guess what, they’re not gonna see it. Why would you spend so much money acquiring a film and then not do everything you can to ensure it’s a success? And personally speaking, I think they blew it by not releasing Greg and Earl’s spoof films online to generate interest. It was practically free marketing built into the film just handed to them, and they did nothing. They’re only a special feature in the home release. Perhaps the disgusted response from critics at the time of release scared them.

Rarely have I seen critics in consensus turn on a film so viciously. While we all seemed to love it at Sundance, critics all of the sudden decided to hate it upon its theatrical release. This often happens sadly, it will all of the sudden become “cool” to hate on a film/filmmaker just because it’s reached success. Critics were staggeringly split on the film. Some loved it, and others reacted as if the film had manifested into a rude being that kicked their dog and made a pass at their partner.

Sheila O’Malley was repulsed by the film, writing “Other than that acquisitive movie-mad mindset, it is a pandering, self-flattering mess, featuring unearned catharsis, lazy clichés and characters presented in broad, sometimes-offensive stereotypes. The worst part is that “Me and Earl” believes it is aware of all of this. Every cliché arrives with a wink of self-knowing commentary before it, to say, “Yes, we know this is a cliche, but we are making a comment about the cliché!” Saying it don’t make it so. Besides, such commentary has been done before, and it’s been done much better. There’s a laziness at work in “Me and Earl,” a reliance on well-trod ground and over-chewed cultural tropes, and perhaps it is supposed to be that way (these are kids who see everything through the lens of their movie-watching), but it still doesn’t work. The winks about the clichés, including the one in the title, only serve to point up how tired those clichés are.

Scott Tobias acted like the film bit him, exclaiming “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl can’t survive the irony of teaching Greg to think of someone other than himself while advancing a narrative that contradicts that message entirely. And though there are some touching moments in the film—Shannon’s mix of positivity and encroaching grief is especially heartbreaking—vast swaths of it don’t work: The restless camerawork is unmotivated and showy (Gomez-Rejon was once Martin Scorsese’s personal assistant), the lunchroom cliques in Greg’s high school are ancient teen-movie anthropology, and the short films are the sort of one-joke gimmick that Wes Anderson would compress into a single montage. The overall tone of the film is cutesy and slight, with chapter headings that knowingly reference the dramatic turns it’s about to take. Curiously, “The Part Where A Girl Dies So I Can Become A Better Person” is not one of them.”

Fellow Dissolve member David Ehrlich came to the film’s defense in an impassioned piece, stating “In particular, I’ve been frustrated by widespread accusations that the film is as flagrantly egocentric as its self-loathing protagonist, and that the “Dying Girl” of the title is little more than a tool for the personal growth of its solipsistic “Me.”…Except that Gomez-Rejon’s film, by fiercely adhering to the subjectivity of Greg’s perspective, illustrates its hero’s journey away from the very things Scott and others accuse the film of celebrating. While Me And Earl is on its surface an uncomfortably proud celebration of stories in which enchanted dying girls and magical black men exist only to further the spiritual development of a vanilla white male hero, it’s also a rebuke to the self-absorption that makes those stories possible.”

Wesley Morris couldn’t help but be taken by the film, concluding in an excellent piece of writing that “Me & Earl is never too cute nor too clever to move. Andrews and Gomez-Rejon understand the power of some art, that it’s not an end unto itself but an extension of self. I cried because the movie conducts itself in absolute empathy. I also cried because this is one of the few movies I’ve seen that actively believes in art as an afterlife.”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that is both heartbreaking and hilarious, it will crush you just as much as it will cheer you up. An emotional trip, it deserved a much better release than the one it got and suffered from a lack of understanding from critics.

Why It’s Great

I will never forget when I saw this film at Sundance. I’ve never been in a theater that was crying so much when the film ended. Everyone was just destroyed, but in a good way. Sitting next to me was this big, burly biker-gang looking man and he was sobbing. I almost leaned over to hold him, that’s what kind of film this is. During the Q and A with Gomez-Rejon and the cast it got even more emotional when an audience member thanked them for this film as it reminded her of when her son had cancer, and then the cast and crew started crying which made the audience start crying all over again. Never again will I experience that sort of feeling with an audience, and I thank the film for having that effect on all of us. It’s not often you finish a film and feel a kinship with everyone else in the theater, like you all just went through the same thing together.

Gomez-Rejon’s direction gets to the emotion of each scene, whether it’s emotional or hilarious or a combination of the two. This film will make you laugh just as much as it breaks your heart, but it earns every tear it jerks out of you, and does so as visually creative as possible. Chung-Hoon Chung is one of the great cinematographers, working on all of Chan-wook Park’s films. His mastery of his craft is a huge win for the film. He frames high school like a prison, mirroring Greg’s viewpoint of the institution with imposing compositions and framings when in school. He and Gomez-Rejon never settle for simple coverage, their camera is constantly moving with Scorsese-like severity, even their static frames are a cut above the standard. There’s rare a shot in this film that doesn’t feel unique on some level. And it’s not like it’s trying too hard to be different, the shots are simply motivated by figuring out the most creative and ambitious way to find the truth of the scene, to show the dynamics between the characters talking. Take the first meeting between Greg and Rachel for example. At first they are separated by wide shots of each of them, Rachel at the top of the stairs in one corner of the frame and Greg at the bottom in another corner. It’s just a simple yet unique way of visually conveying the lack of connection between the two at this moment. When they go upstairs, the framings of each of them get smaller, signalling a slight connection growing between them. They make it seem so simple, but it’s deliberate and innovative.

It’s always great when you have such a large cast where nobody is giving a lacking turn. Thomas Mann is typically cast as an awkward young man, but really finds a certain truth to this stereotype in Me and Earl. He makes Greg feel lived in with his charms and quirks, hitting the apex of his typecasting. It’s so easy to overplay cancer in a film, but Olivia Cooke keeps it honest. She’s never trying too hard, and she never lets Rachel fall into cliches. She takes charge of each scene and has wonderful chemistry with Mann and RJ Cyler.

There was a significant amount of backlash to the film suggesting the portrayal of Earl is racist. That’s a huge disservice to RJ Cyler’s terrific performance. I’ll quote once again from Wesley Morris as my defense: “And I supposed some of the joke of the partnership was that Greg is an upper-middle-class white kid and Earl is black, lives in poor part of town, and seems virtually unparented. (Greg is rarely inside Earl’s house, whose porch is occupied by his do-nothing brother.) But the movie makes Earl a full partner in art and friendship — he’s got feelings and a point of view, and his blackness and thick Rust Belt drawl are never the joke itself. Also: There’s so much going on behind Cyler’s deadpan expression that his inner life feels like a secret he’s the one keeping, instead of the movie. It values the privacy of characters’ interiority and the strategy of what to share and when.” Don’t devalue RJ Cyler’s performance, he’s got natural comedic intuition. He makes the line “titties” sound like the secret to the universe. But Cyler can also bring it in the dramatic moments, nailing a scene where he angrily dresses down Greg’s flaws to his face. RJ Cyler is a true talent.

Connie Britton is one of the greatest actresses to play a mother. Her portrayal of Tami Taylor in the Friday Night Lights show is all time, and her performance here is terrific as well as Greg’s mother. She just embodies so much love and patience. Nick Offerman has a direct line to my funny bones so I’m a sucker for how goofy he gets in this film, and Molly Shannon balances comedic and dramatic moments extremely well. Jon Bernthal makes an impact in a largely thankless role as Greg’s history teacher, delivering a monologue that’s imbued with such authenticity and emotion towards the end of the film.

The films Greg and Earl make are genius. Classics and arthouse deepcuts get juvenile spins on them like “The Seven Seals”, “The 400 Bros”, “Pooping Tom”, “A Sockwork Orange” and “Death in Tennis.” I could have watched another 30 minutes of these mini-movies in the film. They’re just pure creativity and humor, brimming with inventive hilarity. The constant references to films in Me and Earl aren’t just so they can show you they’ve seen this artsy film nobody else has, or to be like “HEY REMEMBER THIS???” – they’re motivated by the characters and their interests. It’s not like Guardians of the Galaxy where they just pack every reference they can and expect that to carry the film, these references are well thought out and creatively injected into the film.

I felt predestined to appreciate this film, as the parallels between Greg and myself were notable. I saw high school similarly to Greg, as a makeup of different nations that were meant to be navigated without too much attachment. I too drifted through high school with friendly acquaintances in each clique, and making dumb movies with my friends. I even ate lunch in my history professor’s room. The parallels are that close. This movie spoke to me on a deep and personal level, and I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one affected by it. I believe there were many theaters full of tears, and there should have been many more. People’s lives don’t end with their death, and art is a way of continuation of life. 

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