Dying Girl wants to be more than a dumb high school movie, isn’t

Gaines talks about how the cafeteria is a literal territorial warzone, because that’s not a joke that’s been made a million times. Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I’ve never met Me and Earl and the Dying Girl director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, but I kind of want to punch him in the face.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the movie version of that one hipster friend who totally swears he isn’t a hipster, a movie so obsessed, so up its own ass with cliches and references and desperate attempts to convince viewers that it’s cool that it becomes less of a movie and more of an advertisement for the movie it wants you to think that it is.

The movie follows Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) through his senior year of high school, during which he befriends Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), who is diagnosed with leukemia at the movie’s start. Through their friendship, Gaines is drawn from his private world of actively avoiding high school cliches and amateur moviemaking with Earl (Ronald Cyler II) and into a real life-and-death story about nagging parents, the importance of college applications and the true meaning of friendship.

Pretty much everything about this movie behaves as if it doesn’t have the problems that it has.

Look at this! Look at the vast amount of nothing in this image! There’s compositional space, and then there’s a mostly empty frame, and that’s what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of the time.

The movie preaches derisively about high school movies as a genre, but conforms to almost every appropriate cliche and houses every appropriate stock character and then a handful that aren’t necessarily tied to the genre — there’s not one, but two Manic Pixie Dream Girls here.

Most genre pieces are derivative to some degree. They rely on stock characters and situations, as well as similar modes of appeal. Most movies go to some kind of effort to disguise their genre trappings and become unique. High school movies have to navigate particularly annoying territory because the genre’s ’80s boom (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Bueller) gave rise to quirky, anti-high school movies (Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, Superbad) in the ’00s, which have become their own genre of self-satirizing meta movies. This works with movies like the ones listed, which don’t just point out cliches of the genre — they also subvert them, avoid them or update them to create movies that work on their own even without the meta jokes. But then you get something like The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, which points out all of its genre trappings just as it shamelessly conforms to them under the guise of being “quirky.” Me and Earl and the Dying Girl goes even further in the wrong direction by using every stock character and situation it can imagine and lying to your face about it.

That’s the most solid source of hatred toward this movie. It thinks it can get away with genericism by saying it isn’t generic.

The movie thinks its characters aren’t awful. Its characters are the worst!

Gaines is the kind of sexist, entitled, thinks-he-has-real-problems sycophant that would genuinely sympathize with this movie. “I don’t know how to deal with pretty girls!” “The cafeteria is a literal war zone!” “College applications are hard!” “Death is scary!” Fuck you.

The real lowlight is his mother (Connie Britton), who’s only purpose in life is to nag. Every word of her shrew-like voice is another knife I want to drive into this movie.

Katherine C. Hughes plays Madison, Gaines’ crush. Every time she walks onscreen, the film cuts to a visual representation of her “destroying Gaines’ life without even knowing it” because she’s pretty, promoting and adhering to the idea that anything someone does to get into someone else’s pants is somehow the responsibility of the person whose pants they’re tying to get into. This movie is sexist.

The most obnoxious part of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the direction. The movie is filled with references to better movies, genre twists the movie is promising not to make but later will and long one-shots because Gomez-Rejon wants people to say he’s talented and thinks going over things that have been done a hundred times before constitutes outstanding direction. The frequent one-shots stand out as the worst offenses, as most of them are poorly composed and draw the eye to the empty part of the screen. Also, about two thirds of the screen is empty in many of these shots.

The only impressive one-shot is an early one that follows Gaines all the way through his house while his mother spews a steady stream of vitriolic badgering about paying Kushner a visit. It’s well-executed, but also a clear demonstration of the axiom that just because something is well made doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch.

The movie is calculatedly quirky, inorganic, dishonest and dishonest about its dishonesty. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a piece of corporate art, with no more soul or originality than the 17th Transformers movie. Avoid.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets a limited release June 12 and will expand throughout the rest of the month.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. This review brought to you with special thanks to chaos consultant Josh Marino. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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