This is an article about perspective, written by somebody who currently doesn’t have any. It’s an article about death, written by somebody who can only talk about it like he’s speaking a second language. It’s an article about why, in the most confusing time of my life, one of the only things I’m sure of is that some stupid Sundance movie is being widely misunderstood. Maybe that put me in the perfect headspace to write about Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s controversial new film (controversial on Film Twitter, at least), but if I knew what I wanted to say about it, I had no idea how. I still don’t. I wasn’t sure if I should make this personal—I wasn’t sure if I should make it about me—and so it is and it isn’t, lost in the limbo between a diary and a term paper, part Xanga and part Film Comment. I’m not ready to write about this stuff, but I so desperately want to be that I couldn’t stop myself.
Anyway, spoiler warning: You probably shouldn’t read this before you’ve seen Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Or after.
I first saw the movie at its storied première (every Sundance has that one screening that feels more like a happening), after which I called it “The Citizen Kane of teen cancer tearjerkers,” a somewhat backhanded compliment that nevertheless was meant to convey a genuine admiration for what I’d just watched. A little more than a month after returning to sea level, I learned my dad had a Grade IV brain tumor. (For those of you fortunate enough not to know how brain tumors are classified, that’s not the kind you’d pick if given the choice.)
I saw Me And Earl again a few weeks later, and while my second viewing wasn’t exactly revelatory—in fact, I found the film sloppier and more labored in its construction than I remembered—it nevertheless helped me untie a knot that’s been tightening in my mind since I first learned about my dad’s diagnosis.
In particular, I’ve been frustrated by widespread accusations that the film is as flagrantly egocentric as its self-loathing protagonist, and that the “Dying Girl” of the title is little more than a tool for the personal growth of its solipsistic “Me.” Among the most eloquent and dismissive articulations of that idea was published on this very website, when the esteemed Scott Tobias observed: “The film doesn’t have the perspective that its hero lacks. The world is little but a mechanism to advance his narrative—to make him a better filmmaker, to make him a better friend, and perhaps to get him into the college of his choice. Everyone else in the movie might as well be dead by the end of it, too, for all their individual destinies matter in the grand scheme of things. Gomez-Rejon has erected a gleaming shrine to adolescent narcissism.”
But what this piece presupposes is… what if he hasn’t? On the contrary, Gomez-Rejon has made a film that articulates why it’s valid, and valuable, to suggest a (young) person might try to make sense of a senseless loss through the lens of his own limited worldview. This bold attempt has resulted in a portrait that’s honest in a way dramas about death seldom are. Me And Earl isn’t a shrine to adolescent narcissism, it’s a wrecking ball to it.
“It’s not a good film. OK? Actually, it sucks… We had pretty good intentions, but that doesn’t mean we made a good film. OK? Because it’s not about her at all. It’s just this embarrassing thing that shows that we don’t even understand anything about her.”
That’s not a transcription of the speech Gomez-Rejon gave at the Me And Earl wrap party, it’s an excerpt from the Jesse Andrews novel from which the film was adapted. The source material, like the movie, is explicitly told from the point of view of high-schooler protagonist Greg Gaines, and to some critics’ chagrin, neither Andrews’ novel nor his screenplay adaptation of the story is about “her” at all.
Except that Gomez-Rejon’s film, by fiercely adhering to the subjectivity of Greg’s perspective, illustrates its hero’s journey away from the very things Scott and others accuse the film of celebrating. While Me And Earl is on its surface an uncomfortably proud celebration of stories in which enchanted dying girls and magical black men exist only to further the spiritual development of a vanilla white male hero, it’s also a rebuke to the self-absorption that makes those stories possible.
Greg is a young cinephile who’s mortally afraid of actually becoming his own person. Naturally, he worships Werner “It was not a significant bullet” Herzog above all other auteurs. The cinema’s greatest self-mythologizer is a perfect embodiment of the fearlessness that seems as unnatural to Greg as the opera does to the jungles of Peru.
Like many teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) is self-loathing and solipsistic in equal measure, convinced he’s unworthy of a world that revolves around him. As Greg outlines to the audience with some degree of pride, he’s on civil terms with all of the various cliques at his school. He’s an adolescent Switzerland who’s careful never to be drawn too closely into any one group, lest that affiliation engender animosity from the others and petrify his sense of self. (The cliques he sorts his classmates into are meant to be glaringly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a John Hughes movie, as Greg always uses film to inform reality, as opposed to the other way around.)
Greg has a pathological need to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. His survival mechanisms prevent him from making enemies, but also denies him the pleasure of acknowledging any friends. To that end, Greg refers to Earl (R.J. Cyler)—his classmate and closest companion—as a “co-worker.” The term is justified by the fact that they spend most of their time together making silly parodies of classic films. (Most of which have been canonized by the Criterion Collection, which conveniently spares Greg the risk of asserting his own preferences.) Greg won’t admit it, but a major appeal of these collaborations is that he gets to spend a lot of time with someone he likes without ever having to actually get to know him. Earl, for the record, is quick to clarify that they’re friends, but that Greg “has issues.” Greg clearly has a passion for filmmaking, and arguably has a talent for it as well. But he’s too afraid of becoming himself to make something that’s truly his own. He’s a diehard auteurist who’s petrified of hearing his own voice.
Perversely, in a crucial disconnect that Greg may not be able to reconcile for himself until he’s older, this story is defined by Greg’s voice. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a movie about perspective, and Gomez-Rejon uses its theme as his primary method of conveying that perspective. As suggested by the title, there is no Me And Earl And The Dying Girl without Greg, who appears in every scene, and through whom all of the other characters—including Earl and “dying girl” Rachel (Olivia Cooke) are allowed to exist.
The significance of that tack—evident throughout the film via the garishly anamorphic compositions of DP Chung Chung-hoon, which distort Greg’s reality into a caricature of high cinema—is clear from the film’s first moments, as Greg’s self-deprecating voiceover immediately slays any pretense of objectivity. (To further illustrate the point, Gomez-Rejon has Greg conjure “The Hot Girl From Pussy Riot” out of thin air.) From there, and in great detail, Greg articulates the most important thing viewers need to know about him: He is the center of the universe, an egocentric delusion he sustains by reducing the people in his life to the most cartoonish versions of themselves. That way, he doesn’t have to meaningfully engage with them. Greg’s professor dad, for example, is a layabout foodie who feels like somebody’s parody of liberal academics. Greg’s favorite teacher, played by the hulking Jon Bernthal, is like a cross between Dead Poets Society and a can of Mountain Dew. The women in Greg’s life fare even worse: Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon) is a tragic alcoholic cougar who could easily be a middle-aged Mary Katherine Gallagher. And the local “hot girl” is often abstracted to the point where she’s no longer human; she transforms into an indifferent woodland creature whenever she blithely stomps on Greg’s unspoken lust.
Much has been made about the fact that Earl is black, lives in a bad part of town that looks like the grotesquely distorted “set from a Tim Burton production,” and seldom has anything to say beyond his catchphrase, “Dem titties.” And while it’s true that Earl is the most loaded of the caricatures Greg draws for himself (Earl is a less-enchanted version of the magical-black-character stereotype that won’t die until every last DVD of The Legend Of Bagger Vance is burned in a Dumpster fire), the film’s conception of him is squarely in line with its protagonist’s point of view. And while that’s more of an explanation than an excuse, the film deserves credit for not cheating Greg’s worldview. If Greg is nothing more than the sum of the media he consumes, the instances in which he internalizes unfortunate screen representations make him a symptom of it, as well.
Crucially, Gomez-Rejon gets a lot of mileage from juxtaposing the broadness of how Greg perceives Earl’s poverty with how little he’s able to glean from it. Scott observed, “The racial and class differences between Greg and Earl go uncommented upon,” but that’s only because our hero is too entitled to appreciate Earl’s institutional disadvantages. As a self-loathing narrator, Greg painfully illustrates how he took for granted the opportunities that were denied to his closest companions. Why else make time for two separate scenes in which he blithely assumes college is as possible a next chapter for Earl and Rachel as it is for himself? (Earl’s fate in the film is unclear, but in the book, he gets a job at Wendy’s.)
With Earl, the subject is only mentioned in passing, but with Rachel, it becomes fodder for the kind of forehead-smacking moment that can haunt someone for the rest of his life. Leafing through a thick college guidebook as he visits Rachel in the hospital, Greg suddenly adopts Herzog’s voice and begins to mock up an admissions essay. He’s as oblivious about how the imitation is a defense mechanism as he is to the way planning for the future might not be the best group activity to do with someone who has terminal cancer.
Greg may be coming from a good place—as his deceptive narration suggests, he knows Rachel is dying, though he refuses to accept it—but his lack of sensitivity certainly registers as narcissism from time to time. Gomez-Rejon doesn’t rub Greg’s nose in it, but a quick reverse shot of Rachel discretely closing the big book of colleges is one of the pivotal junctures where the film deviates from Greg’s POV to illustrate how limited it is. (Though even when we’re seeing something he isn’t, we’re still looking through his eyes.) The movie does have the perspective its hero lacks. And given that it’s filtered through Greg’s perspective, it only stands to reason that Greg ultimately achieves that same perspective when all is said and done.
Still, there’s no denying that Rachel dies so Greg can experience a teachable moment. Her illness isn’t incidental—like an NPC in a videogame, she and her leukemia only exist because the hero entered her part of the world and gave it reason to be rendered. But if Rachel dies so Greg can become a better person, her death doesn’t reward Greg’s narcissism, it emancipates him from it.
When Greg is tasked with making a film for Rachel—and it’s crucial that the project isn’t his idea—the limitations of his perspective are revealed to him. In trying to make a movie for someone else, he realizes just how clumsy and incomplete an understanding he has of other people, and that clarity only grows more creatively paralyzing as Rachel’s condition worsens faster than Greg can make sense of it. The first and most banal portions of his failed opus consists of Rachel’s classmates staring into the camera and improvising a series of empty Hallmark platitudes about the dying girl’s ability to win her battle against cancer. Shot in the style of Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” but filmed with techniques borrowed from Errol Morris, this first part of the movie gives way to Stan Brakhage-like abstractions, and then ultimately to an explosion of shapes and colors that evoke the work of Charles and Ray Eames.
Yes, each part of “Rachel The Film” betrays Greg’s influences, but in becoming a more sincere thief, he stumbles into a voice of his own. While his magnum opus isn’t the cancer-curing masterpiece he’d hoped for, it nevertheless coheres into something unique when cut together. Its structure bluntly illustrates Greg’s evolution from ignorance to empathy. Rachel enters the movie (either movie) as a symbol, and she exits as an ineffable explosion of pure energy. Where once she was just the Dying Girl next door, now she’s larger than life. In death, she is infinite.
Greg screens the film on the night Rachel slips into her final coma. He doesn’t know his film is the last thing she will ever see, and the way he frames the episode makes it clear that he didn’t intend to occupy her precious final moments, or assume the burden of responsibility for them. It could be argued that Gomez-Rejon stumbles by conflating Rachel’s death with the unveiling of the movie made for her, a change from the book that inextricably entwines Greg’s artistic growth with the girl’s demise. (In the novel, not only does she survive the screening, she gives it a mixed-to-negative review). On the other hand, the disconnect between his deluded hopes for the presentation and the reality of what happened exposes the paucity of his perspective, and makes him realize he was as much a character in her movie as she was in his.
This is how Andrews conveys Greg’s internal monologue in the book: “We hadn’t made the film about her at all. She was just dying, there, and we had gone and made a film about ourselves. We had taken this girl and used her really to make a film about ourselves, and it just seemed so stupid and wrong that I couldn’t stop crying. Rachel The Film is not at all about Rachel. It’s about how little we know about Rachel.” In the movie, Greg doesn’t have to say any of that. The film he’s in is a success because it so honestly internalizes everything he learned from the perceived failures of the film he made.
People are so much more than what we know of them, so much more than what they do for us. Yes, Rachel does Greg a solid by helping him get readmitted to college, but I’d say it’s a nice parting gift for the only person who was willing to spend time with her during the final days of her life. Besides, if Rachel can be accused of dying for Greg, the least he could do is live for her in return.
I guess I should end this by making it personal again, to justify that self-serving preamble you probably don’t remember from 3,000 words ago.
The message of the final scene in Me and Earl is pretty damn clear, but it wasn’t until the second time I saw it that I had my own baggage to bring to the table. Watching Greg discover Rachel’s intricately carved-out books, the hidden depths she left behind like a cutesy treasure map, I couldn’t help but think of how much I’ve learned about my dad since he got sick, and how much more I’ll never know. I realized I’ve grown desperate to appreciate my father less for the role he’s played for me, and more for the man he’s been. It’s not that his life is some great mystery, only that every time someone shines a light, it reveals a new network of passages to explore. As I stumble around them in the dark and go deeper, the surface grows more distant with every step. When he dies, it will disappear completely, melting into home videos, photographs, and flashbulb memories. As the movie faded to black and the title card appeared in tribute to Julio Cesar Gomez-Rejon, it occurred to me that the director may have dedicated this film to his late father, but he made it for himself.
Every time I visit my dad in the hospital, I try to lose myself in the logistics of his care. I help him to the bathroom, I feed him when the tremor in his hands is too severe for him to use a fork, and I tell him he’s going to get better with such conviction, I almost start to think it’s true. I look at him, hardly able to recognize the most familiar man I know, and I say to myself:
This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me.
But it is.