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With a Mean Streets poster on one wall and one of The 400 Blows on another, I feel like I could probably relate to high school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). He sees life as a set of stories, yours, mine, his, hers, ours, all told in different ways by different people for ultimately the same purpose: To connect. Like many of us (especially at that winding age) he feels like he can’t, so instead of using his own life to tell his story, he, along with best friend ‘coworker’ Earl (Ronald Cyler II), makes bad homemade versions of classic movies. Seeing spoofs of classics like Midnight Cowboy (or 2:48 P.M. Cowboy) and A Clockwork Orange (titled Sockwork Orange) is a delight; they’re hilarious and they played huge in my screening. The homemade parodies are funny, but they hold emotional weight to the story that pays off big late in the film. Screenwriter Jesse Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon include little that doesn’t have more than one purpose.
Greg Gaines is a weird kid but tries so, so hard not to be. He’d rather be reduced to an amusing presence than a cared about person, and we see him cycle from social group to social group—theater kids, jocks, aspiring hip-hop artists—modifying his speech and behavior to win their attention but not their love. He has a stock comeback I won’t spoil that he uses when he has no other material—anything to not be sincere.
He might believe in love but he doesn’t believe it will find him. Certainly not in high school. I knew dozens of Gregs when I was his age, and in many ways I identify with him. His worries are most people’s worries, and as our entrance into this sad, funny, charming, and ultimately strangely life-affirming story, Gregg needs to be instantly relatable, and he is. Mann’s heartfelt and warm performance makes you fall for him instantly. To his dismay, he’s ordered by his mom (Connie Britton) to be the fake-smiling friend for a classically misunderstood and socially ignored girl that was recently diagnosed with a type of cancer (Olivia Cooke). It’s “one of the bad ones.” as Greg’s teacher laments. It’s basic storytelling mechanics that he meets her under forced circumstances—it’s what gives them room to grow. Their friendship is sincerely sweet and surprisingly believable, a diamond in the rough. There’s a glimmer of The Fault in Our Stars in Dying Girl, but where that was loaded with t-shirt platitudes and little else, this is a more sophisticated, mature work and has the self-discipline not to preach.
The teens are complex and nuanced, real people that have plausible lives outside the confines of a film frame. Conversely, the adults are one dimensional. They don’t have the depth of the teen characters, acting instead as plot puppetmasters to get things moving from point A to point B. Criticizing their blandness is a mistake—this movie is told completely from Greg’s point of view. If the adults seem underdeveloped, that’s exactly how Greg saw them. Our vantage point is beholden to his, and as we’re pulled further and further into his state of mind, Gomez-Rejon brilliantly restages how he composes his shots. The camera starts off with showy flourishes of a Scorsese style, with razz-dazz panning from one room, one floor, or one location to the next. Slowly the camera becomes more handheld, more subjective, and by that point we’re fastened to his point of view. Whatever comes his way, we’ll feel it with him.
Dying Girl wraps its wide-reaching ambitions around the unifying theme of trying to connect. Connection is what drives a lot of our behavior, what scientists and evolutionary psychologists label “relationships for social utility and child rearing.’ Cold and cerebral as that sounds, we’re biologically programmed to crave warm fuzzies—love and affection—and no time in your life does this feel more imperative than in high school. There’s the social cliques, the pressure to be cool, and the fear of being an outsider, all of which make for a bitter tonic that’s increasingly difficult to swallow. High school isn’t just the setting of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it’s the premise, the plot, and the soul. In the same way Stand By Me is a definitive movie for the junior high years, Dying Girl is one of the great definitive movies about what it means to be in high school, especially that awkward time on the cusp of college where adult-level responsibility begins to be thrust upon you. What a more brilliant metaphor for dealing with growing up than to deal with death.
If you’re familiar with indie movies in the last few years, this is familiar territory. Colors are drab and brown with splurges of slightly faded primary colors (ala Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach), clothing is a living advertisement for Urban Outfitters or American Apparel and the only thing that could make this movie appeal more to hipsters is if Greg had a knot of hair fastened into a man-bun. The tone is melancholic with offbeat humor, everything is meta and self-referential, and you’re expected a certain level of literacy to get the jokes. What separated the indie breakout film 500 Days of Summer is its sweetness and honesty, and the same is completely true of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I could bring friends who have no clue who François Truffaut is and expect them to be charmed and moved. I have every confidence they would be, and as a reflection of storytelling itself, Dying Girl is the rare work where the themes are essential to the poignancy of the plot.
I laughed, I cried, and how the filmmakers know when to use one to empower the other is the film’s real genius. Laughing makes the emotional turmoil that’s at the heart of this cancer semi-love story hit harder, but the sad moments bottle up until the pressure erupts with a perfectly timed gag. Emotions play big on both ends, so while the self reflexivity of Dying Girl’s stories within stories would always enchant critics, it’s no surprise it won the audience award along with the jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the rare movie that feels like it was made just for you, broad enough to capture major archetypes but specific enough to feel personal and handmade. Sadly the last stretch does stumble, and the momentum slacks when Greg hits a figurative wall of his own. It’s not until the finale does Me and Earl and the Dying Girl find its footing again, but it’s almost a compliment that this (albeit big) flaw is all that prevents Dying Girl from being truly great.
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