I’ve never been to a film festival but from the sidelines I have a pretty good idea of which ones matter. Toronto and its younger cousin telluride are obviously important as a launching pads for Award Season prestige fare, and the European festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Berlin are amazing founts of ambitious auteur driven works of art. Then there’s Sundance, which to my (admittedly uninformed) eyes seems like the most over-rated of all film festivals. The festival, which all too often seems to reward scrappiness over artistry and this lowered standard has in many ways seemed to retard American independent cinema. Still, every year at least one movie from the festival is deemed “the one to see” and more often than not that film does indeed end up being part of the conversation. This “it” movie is almost never something truly great; at best it will just be something solidly made if slightly conventional like Whiplash at worst it will be an “independent” movie with super-mainstream ambitions and very few original ideas like Little Miss Sunshine. This year the “it” movie was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a movie which isn’t quite a textbook example of a “Sundancey” movie but which is certainly emblematic of pretty much everything else that is wrong with American independent cinema.
The film focuses on a high school senior named Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) who feels disconnected with most of the cliques in his high school and who spends most of his time hanging out with his friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II). When Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) learns that a girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who Greg is very loosely acquainted with, has been diagnosed with leukemia and insists that Greg go and visit her. Greg rightly believes that such a meeting would be really awkward but goes anyway after his mother nags him enough. The visit is pretty tense at first but over time the two become friends, which is of course a rather troubling prospect given that Rachel is… well, a dying girl. Eventually a mutual friend of Greg and Rachel’s suggest that he use his filmmaking knowledge to make a movie for Rachel as a means of lifting her spirits, a task that he finds rather interminable given his general perfectionism.
Wes Anderson comparisons get thrown around rather recklessly from time to time. Basically he seems to get “credit” for seemingly every supposedly cute but actually annoying indie trope that seems to catch on, even the ones that don’t actually turn up in any of his movies. I’d heard that this movie was a different, but as the movie started and it went into a random claymation/papier-mâché sequence with a tossed off reference to Pussy Riot I sort of groaned and thought, “yep, it’s another one of these.” The movie certainly has its share of those generic indie quirks that Anderson gets unfairly blamed for but it is also definitely a bona fide Anderson ripoff when it comes to its visual style, especially in its first half. As for those more generic indie tropes? Well from an aesthetic perspective there are the sarcastic title cards and the self-aware voice over. On more a narrative level there’s the fact that this is yet another auto-biographical coming of age story (albeit with the autobiographical elements seemingly coming from writer Jesse Andrews rather than director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) which takes place in a vaguely heightened and quirky world filled with smart young people of the kind that certain literary types like to think they were at that age.
What’s more, while Greg and Rachel’s relationship does not become romantic I’d argue that she is still a manic pixie of some variety. The movie ultimately isn’t all that concerned with her as a character beyond her effect on the lead, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie being told from a limited perspective the fact of the matter is that these “manic pixies” are such an indie cliché at this point that it really just kind of ups the eye-rolling quotient for the film. It kind of feels like all of these movies are trying real hard to be the voice of a generation but, I don’t know, I kind of wonder if they’re really kind of the voice of the last generation at this point. Bottle Rocket came out in the February of 1996, which means that we are less than a year away from the Wes Anderson aesthetic being twenty years old, and yet the indie community still hasn’t moved on to some other more original cultural idea, and you can kind of see this in the stale way the film depicts its teenage characters. For example, Greg goes to a high school that still has goths in it as a major sub-culture. Are goths still a thing? They certainly weren’t when I was in high school over a decade ago, and yet they still show up here. And while Greg does notably have an iPhone you don’t really hear a word in the movie about Facebook or Skype or any of the other technologies that almost certainly would have impacted the kind of relationship depicted in the film.
What’s annoying about all this is that, handled a little differently, I feel like this would have been a pretty serviceable if still not overly original little movie. This is, after all, a movie about a relative high school loner who can’t relate to the people in the various high school cliques and finds himself obsessively interested in highbrow cinema that none of his peers seem to care about… I can relate to that… but the movie exists under such a veil of unreality that it kind of cancels out whatever would seem familiar. Besides, the whole cinephillia aspect of the character seems pretty insincere anyway. We see that Greg owns a lot of memorabilia related to foreign cinema and occasionally see him and Earl watching these films, but we never see him actually talk about any of these movies and nothing about the character seems to really be informed by any sort of profound interest in the art of cinema. Really the movie only seems to have included this character trait as yet another indie quirk and as a reason for the movie to include clips from a bunch of classic films that he and Earl have “Sweded” (yeah, the movie does move away from ripping off Wes Anderson just long enough to rip off Michel Gondry).
Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have reacted to this movie if it existed in a vacuum. Maybe I would have liked it a lot more if I hadn’t felt like I’d already seen it 50 million times already. It’s possible that I hate the movie more for what it represents than what it actually is, but dammit I’m tired of this shit I have to stop letting myself get punkd into seeing stuff like this. I managed to avoid previous indulgent autobiographical coming of age movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Way Way Back, but somehow I got suckered into this one. Maybe it was because Sundance’s Dramatic Jury prize had actually done a pretty good job of breaking away from their usual nonsense the last couple of years I let my guard down. Maybe I’ll revisit the film years down the line when this trend is finally over and it will look better to me, I don’t know, but from where I sit now I really just couldn’t get behind it.
** out of Four