In Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, Greg (Thomas Mann) isn’t close to anyone in his Pittsburgh high school except his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes low-rent Super-8 knockoffs of classic movies, giving them silly titles like “Eyes Wide Butts” and “A Box Of Lips, Wow!” Over the course of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film, Greg reluctantly becomes close to someone else: Rachel (Olivia Cooke), his neighbor and classmate who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Their friendship is loose and charming, and it rarely acknowledges the cancerous elephant in the room, until the end of the film’s second act, when the emotional hammer drops. Inside Rachel’s bedroom, with the camera held steady at a low angle pointing upward, Rachel tells Greg she’s stopping her treatment, or “giving up,” as Greg calls it during their heated argument. Shot as a single, uninterrupted take, the scene is raw, heart-wrenching, and beautifully acted.
Gomez-Rejon and author/screenwriter Jesse Andrews focus so much on laughter and character-building that this sudden shift is particularly shocking. And they follow up with an equally tense, visceral fight between Greg and Earl, adding to Me And Earl’s emotional sneak attack. There’s more fervent impact in those two scenes than in all the Twilight movies combined.
The good news: Gomez-Rejon’s film isn’t an anomaly.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is the latest entry in a growing line of movies that look at teenagers as adults, not immature buffoons or romance-starved dreamers in search of sparkling vampires. It’s the inevitable, merciful response to several years’ worth of Twilight wannabes and idiotic comedies trying to be Superbad without comprehending why Superbad works. There’s no cathartic humanism in the aggressively raunchy, one-dimensional Project X. Whenever the audience’s heartstrings are targeted in any of the Twilight movies or the many post-Twilight YA copycats, nuance gets trounced by overcooked melodrama, suspect CGI, and—sorry, Taylor Lautner—bad acting.
The sea change began in 2012 with The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s delicate character study about a shy freshman (Logan Lerman) battling fits of depression and a history of sexual abuse. In 2013, the momentum continued with The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt’s film version of Tim Tharp’s novel, adapted by screenwriting team Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. It’s a wonderfully effective look at budding teenage love, parental neglect, and high-school classism that plays more like a multi-faceted adult drama than typical teenage fare. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and The Spectacular Now tackled weighty issues like attempted suicide, alcoholism, and nearly fatal accidents with a startling truthfulness usually reserved for R-rated 21-and-older fare, a no-holds-barred realism that had been absent in the Twilight-influenced YA adaptation market. It was a new day for adolescent moviegoers.
Spectacular Now star Shailene Woodley staked her claim as the face of cinema’s Teenage New Wave by leading last year’s The Fault In Our Stars, an impressively performed teen-weepie about young cancer patients in love that earns its late-game tears and Kleenex accompaniment. (As with Spectacular Now, Neustadter and Weber adapted the screenplay from a YA novel.) This year, though, the trend seems to be reaching its zenith, led by the 2015 Sundance Film Festival breakouts Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (which won the Grand Jury Prize) and Marielle Heller’s debut feature The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, a strikingly mature, often hilarious and atypically female-centric look at young sexuality. In this, it joins February’s well-received teen comedy The DUFF and the recent tender indie drama I Believe In Unicorns. There’s also the forthcoming Paper Towns, which again finds Neustadter and Weber adapting a popular novel by John Green, currently the go-to author on the teen bibliophile circuit.
Finally, filmmakers are treating teenagers with respect again. “For a while, it seemed like most of the movies about and for young people involved superpowers and wizards, vampires, and a lot of old metaphors for what kids are going through,” Weber told The Dissolve. “It’s nice that it’s come back around to a more straightforward approach of really digging into what the young-person experience is actually like.”
Neustadter and Weber have emerged as teenage cinephiles’ non-pretentious answers to Aaron Sorkin. Since their alternately funny and heartbreaking original screenplay for the 2009 indie sensation (500) Days Of Summer, about post-college characters, Neustadter and Weber have settled into their roles as purveyors of genuine high-school stories that don’t include monsters or depravity. “Scott and I were lucky enough to come of age when John Hughes was in his prime,” says Weber. “His movies were really special, and one of the unique qualities about his movies was that he didn’t talk down to his audience—he talked to them. He treated what young people were going through with respect, and some understanding and empathy. One of the things the projects we’ve been fortunate enough to work on have in common is that same DNA. They all really treat what the young characters are going through with those John-Hughes-like qualities of respect, empathy, and concern.”
With that respect comes an understanding of how teens actually live now. Influenced by factors like Marvel Comics’ current cultural domination and people like Pharrell Williams and Lady Gaga becoming fashion icons and trendsetters, the types of kids who were once considered nerds and outcasts are now cool. Bullies are now tech-minded computer whizzes who take their mean-spiritedness online. April’s all-screenshot revisionist slasher flick Unfriended is a horror film, and thus outside the sphere of movies like Me And Earl, but it intelligently addresses the evolution of Billy Zabka-type troublemakers into any teenager who knows how to use Facebook and Skype. It’s indicative of how filmmakers are breaking away from teen cinema’s stale archetypes.
Films like Me And Earl And The Dying Girl also embrace those societal changes. None of their protagonists are necessarily future prom kings and queens, but they also aren’t treated like their schools’ lower-class hallway denizens. Perhaps the strongest example is the upcoming Dope, another Sundance 2015 highlight about a black teenager in South Central, L.A., who plays rock music, dresses like a Pharrell acolyte, and is noticeably insecure around girls, but isn’t a pariah. “Here’s the thing: It’s not like the star athlete is ever not going to be cool,” says Neustadter. “It’s just a broadening of people who own what they are—that is now cool, whether it’s science or athletics. I guarantee you, though, that kid still has that feeling of alienation and inadequacy. Those things are so great to articulate and play with, because those feelings will never go away. They’re still there, and they still run deep. And by responding to these more grown-up movies, kids are saying, ‘Don’t put us in those old boxes anymore. We are complex. We have a lot of different facets. We will not be categorized.’”
Another trait Me And Earl shares with this year’s like-minded Dope and The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, as well as the two-year-old The Spectacular Now, is its Sundance première. It should come as no surprise that most of these progressive teen films have been made independently. The filmmakers responsible for these projects have long since realized that studios need flashy YA-fiction buzz or high-concept supernaturalism to get them to pony up the finances, and have thus retreated to the DIY world to give young audiences their much-needed antidotes to disposable faux-Twilight releases like The Host, The Mortal Instruments, and whatever the hell Vampire Academy is. Those kinds of films aren’t completely dying off—there are two more Shailene Woodley-led Divergent sequels on deck for 2016 and 2017, following the Hunger Games: Mockingjay sequel November 2015. But in the wake of films like The Host failing to reach $100 million grosses, the reliable Divergent and Hunger Games franchises are the last YA cash cows standing.
The Spectacular Now aside, Neustadter and Weber have been able to insert their admirable concern for teenage viewers into the studio system, but that’s a direct byproduct of the John Green machine. Given Green’s enthusiastic young readership, novels like The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns are surefire investments. With Paper Towns, in particular, Green’s name is the saving grace for a teen story that otherwise would be anything but marketable. Billed as “Gone Girl for teens,” it’s the story of a kid who spends one eventful night with the girl of his dreams, then learns she’s missing. And, yes, it’s both comedy and a drama. “The numbers are showing that kids are reading more now than they have before,” says Weber. “That shows the studios that these younger audiences are ready for more sophisticated stories. Paper Towns, for example, isn’t a movie that studios would have made years ago. It’s a super-weird one that refuses to stay in any one genre. Without the fact that John Green’s novel is so beloved and successful, I can’t imagine that something as weird as Paper Towns would’ve ever made it through the system.”
“We’ve been very fortunate to have John Green on our team, because the studios are a lot less nervous about green-lighting a real, not-watered-down teenager movie that’s based on one of his novels, since the audience is already there and it’s really big,” adds Neustadter. “His fan base is really excited about these movies, and they’re hungry, so you can make the movie as real and authentic as you need it to be in order to keep them happy. The studios don’t want to anger his fans by watering his novels down.”
Still, The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns are, first and foremost, wide releases made to make money. As a result, they’re both PG-13, the restriction that means the teen characters may live adult lives, but not too adult. The same goes for Me And Earl, but not the other films in question here. When teen movies are produced outside the studio world, they can get a little edgier, and concurrently, even realer. “What R-rated films like The Spectacular Now and The Diary Of A Teenage Girl have going for them is an authenticity that you might not find in a PG-13 movie,” says Neustadter, “because the truth of the matter is, the teenage experience is not a PG-13 experience.”
The most in-your-face example of the R-rated teen experience is The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, set to open in limited release in early August. Marielle Heller’s debut—an adaptation of 2002’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures, by cartoonist/author Phoebe Gloeckner—follows Minnie, a teenager growing up in 1970s San Francisco. When Minnie isn’t working toward becoming a comic-book illustrator, she dives head-first into her first love affair—with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). “Minnie is this brave, flawed, interesting, curious, intelligent teenage protagonist that we’ve never seen before,” says Heller. “I found her to be this weird little hero. We don’t get to see characters like her very much, especially if they’re female.”
Terrifically portrayed by Bel Powley, Minnie is smart, self-deprecating, vulnerable, and sexually confident without losing sight of her bedroom inexperience. Heller includes all the nudity and awkwardness that comes with sex, handling the potentially dicey teenager-sleeps-with-older-man storyline with care. “I was always trying to approach the character’s sexuality from a really honest and non-exploitative place,” says Heller. “I always tried to keep it from Minnie’s perspective, because, whether we realize it or not, so much sex in movies is shown from the male perspective. I wasn’t trying to glorify the sex—I was just trying to be as honest as I could, and when you’re young and inexperienced, sex can be awkward, and it can be funny and sometimes sort of tragic. I tried to show all of those things without glossing it up.”
In this new wave of adult movies for teens, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl feels the most necessary. It’s a teen sex comedy that, for once, shows the loss of virginity from a young girl’s perspective. “I have a hard time with movies like American Pie, which are so male-centric,” says Heller. “There’s never really even a way in for girls—girls are just totally the objects of those stories. They’re totally objectified and only there for the guys to want to have sex with. We have a lot of movies where if you’re a girl watching them, your perception of high school is always going to be from the male gaze, from the male perspective. You think that you’re only there for the boys to try to sleep with.”
But with films like The DUFF, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, and, on a smaller scale, I Believe In Unicorns, the cinematic landscape is changing for teenage girls. It’s modern teen cinema’s contribution to the film industry’s gender-equality issue, with everything from the American Civil Liberties Union’s recent efforts to Ava DuVernay’s trailblazing spirit and comedy’s new A-list regime of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer. It’s only right that young girls are given the same newfound attention. “There’s a changing appetite right now, following TV shows like Girls and movies like Afternoon Delight,” says Heller. “There’s definitely been a tipping point for women’s voices in Hollywood. Hollywood was such an embarrassment for so long, and finally people have started demanding a change. I hope that means more honest and brave stories about teenage girls. When people look at high schools for story ideas, maybe they won’t just ignore half of the student population anymore.”
And both halves of the high-school population deserve better than cookie-cutter Hollywood movies with surface-level drama, or comedies that assume they’re only interested in crude sex jokes. “Being a teenager will never be easy,” says Weber. “As long as that’s true, there will always be an opportunity to tell authentic coming-of-age stories about this time in kids’ lives. But at the same time, audiences need to keep supporting them and showing producers and studios that they want to buckle up and go on that emotional experience, or else we could go back to escapist movies. That temptation to go bigger and less complicated will always be there with the studios. We’re going to have keep proving over and over again that there’s an audience for these kinds of films.”