Friday, June 12, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl": Should (young) people be pressured into relationships they at first wouldn't want?


Shortly after starting substitute teaching in the spring of 2004, I was in for a shock. I had done one other day as an assistant for special education and just watched, but this second time, I was quickly switched to another classroom and suddenly asked if I would be OK with helping teens in the locker room (undressing) and then manning the deep end of the swimming pool for a day field trip.  
  

Well, I don’t swim (that is a problem), and I’ve never done anything that could procreate a child, so I was shocked at being invited to step into something like this.  I went home early, but with a full day’s pay.  I scratched that particular place from the profile.  
  
A few years later, on a Friday evening in February 2009, I got a surprise cell phone call asking if I were interested in a job supervising low income teens doing fund raising in shopping malls.  I had never filled out anything online suggesting an interest in doing anything like this.  
  
In the indie Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, based on the novel by Jesse Andrews, the 17-year-old high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) and budding filmmaker is challenged and pressured by his progressive-thinking parents (his dad is a sociology professor) to develop a platonic but real friendship with a female classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after everyone learns of her leukemia diagnosis.  
  
Greg opens the film with a narrative, where he describes his shyness and then his strategy to mix well with every group by remaining mellow.  Then he tells us how he befriended Earl (RJ Cyler), and African-American kid in a lower income neighborhood on his way to school (in Pittsburgh).  Together they made a large library of “Claymation” short films that satirize famous hits – said to really exist in the closing credit.  
  
Greg does use the films to entertain Rachel, but the film does test the boundaries of friendship, given the circumstances.  Greg’s history teacher (rather uncouth in his own coverage by tattoos) gives him slack on term papers, but Greg’s attention to Rachel takes so much time and effort that he develops “senioritis”, and his college admission is rescinded. Well, maybe there’s another way (spoiler).  

No question, Greg is as likeable as teens get.  He probably did learn a lot more taking care of Rachel than from books.  He does, as David Brooks writes in “The Road to Character” (soon to be reviewed on my Books blog) learn to “be good”, although it seems he already is.  The actor’s looks and body language and personal values resemble those of Belgian singer and actor Timo Descamps. 

Technically, the film (in 2.35:1 widescreen) manipulates the geometry of many indoor shots, making, for example, high school hallways meet each other at acute angles.  The scenery of the Washington Heights area of Pittsburgh is effective. 

Nico Muhly and Brian Eno wrote the original music, which includes excerpts from choral works by Vivaldi and Bach (B Minor Mass). Pressburger-Powell gets mentioned, but I didn't pick up the name of the film ("A Canterbury Tale"?) 
   
The film sold out the last night at FilmfestDC, so I saw “Limited Partnership” (April 25) which turned out to be a very good thing. 

  
The official site is here (Fox Searchlight and Indian Paintbrush).  I saw the film before a sparse crowd Friday afternoon at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax.  Jurassic is big distraction.


Pictures:  Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Mine, May 2007 

2 comments:

Bill Boushka said...

Tyler Mowery reviews the writing in this film along the lines of the character arc. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9AREEy4Xlo&t=430s (Aug 3, 2021). Although Tyler talks in terms of how a screenwriter identifies external events that prompt changes in a character's beliefs, there is a moral tone even to Tyler's review: being willing to have an organic relationship with someone actually in need is important for personal growth (that is something Paul Rosenfels always implied at the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s). That is, the writer needs to grow in this area personally, too. (I remember hearing a youth sermon to this effect in 2012.) This is all even more paradoxical in that most of the young adults we admire on YouTube go out of the way to make themselves look flawless personally (like, tattoos are pretty rare in such presenters because they would seem disfiguring). Another context for this is schizoid personality disorder, which I have been told I have, which is a way to adapt to mild autism (Asperger's).

Bill Boushka said...

My own history also includes "dyspraxia" which is in medical limbo as it is not considered a "disability". The film could also be viewed as related to the idea of "personal high agency" and the psychological risks it takes to achieve it.