Thursday, July 9, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who has been considering the facts of John Green in relation to a push, in her community, to teach realist young adult fiction in high school instead of, say, classics.  At one point, when I asked her if she'd rather have people reading the schlocky, terrible writing of Nicholas Sparks or the significantly more well-crafted narratives of John Green, she hit me with the observation that she doesn't assume their audience to be the same: "Sparks is for people who have already given up, so I don't worry about them. Green is aimed straight at kids, and it feels like a trap." I get what she's saying. There's something troubling about the subcategory of literature that asks you feel safe in your lot by exploiting the worst of tragedies, and John Green feels like a snarky preparatory course to put readers on a lifetime of Chardonnay fiction - the type of books you read with a book club and discuss as an excuse to down drink after drink from the ensconced safety of your suburban home.

Maybe that's a bit harsh, but my most recent foray into young adult fiction has revealed a troubling fact: the John Green effect is real, everyone is clamoring for the next big bummer, and after the success of The Fault in Our Stars we've only seen the tip of a new category of teen flicks riddled with cancer, dead siblings, dead best friends, accidental death, repressed abuse, missing people, and every downer of a topic in between.  The worst part, though, is that these texts frequently are not able to situate the tragedies they're writing about comfortably within the narrative or justify their being present.  They feel like piecemeal aggregates of concepts: the quirky protagonist the author really wanted to write clashing with, perhaps, the fringe tragedy their agent has assured will sell more copies. The result is that the dead-or-dying protagonist has become the new, gender neutral version of the manic pixie dream girl: they are a catalyst to bring about a change, a journey, a revelation. They are there to make normal teenage kids into "better people."  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is nothing if not that story, already too familiar in its motions.  And while it uses the leukemia-stricken character of the title more effectively than most of its ilk, as I watched the film I had one repeating thought: why the hell is there a dying girl in this movie at all? 

I'm not saying that the dying girl isn't deeply sad, nor am I saying that the film doesn't manage to use that element as an effective means of  triggering the feels.  Generally, it does these things far more honestly and with a softer hand than - say- The Fault in Our Stars.  The depiction of leukemia here is wholly believable, and as Rachel, actress Olivia Cooke serves her time and offers a wrenching performance appropriately weighted with depression, bitterness, and confusion. But - and try to follow me here - why she gotta be dying?  I'm not howling at the injustice, some bawling fan crying "Oh, it's so unfair that she's dying," I'm saying the fact of her dying is kinda tacked on, an extraneous element that suggests the novel's author and the filmmaker's maybe aren't aware that they don't need a fatal illness to add depth to an already unique story.    

See, the thing about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that at its core it's a coming of age film about a self-conscious, overly critical kid figuring out that he might just have things and people that he's passionate about - and that it's ok to let them in.  The "Me" of the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), another self-reflexive, sarcastic narrator in the long tradition of fourth wall breaking adolescents.  Greg has academic parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) who surround him with books, art house films, and exotic foods.  Their house is a clutter of Criterion Collection discs, and from this Greg has developed a hobby of producing short films parodying (or Sweding) classics with Earl (RJ Cyler), who he refers to as his "co-worker."  Greg tries his best to stay afloat in high school by avoiding attachments and exchanging friendly words with each level of the social hierarchy, a position he maintains by hiding out at lunchtime in the hip history teacher's office watching more old films with Earl.  Out of nowhere, Greg is informed that Rachel, a girl he is minimally acquainted with, has been diagnosed with leukemia.  For reasons unknown, his mother insists that he spend time with her and attempt to befriend her.  Slowly but surely, he does.
What's most interesting about the film, however, is not the fact that their friendship is (as we are repeatedly reminded) doomed.  Instead, it's that this is a film about otherwise realistic teenagers who have developed distinct hobbies and interests, and who are struggling to maintain a different image of themselves that does not belie that.  Greg and Earl have a fascinating dynamic, a push pull of knowing that they need one another and not quite feeling able to admit it - as if something about that would harm their outsider reputations.  Rachel, too, proves to be a girl with a distinct inner life away from the group she socializes with in the cafeteria.  She doodles, she makes secret paper sculptures, she seems to genuinely have an interest in the creative output of the people around her. As the film carries on, the most striking moments are often those that reveal the secret lives of these individuals, and the story could easily have been built solely on the cultivation of genuine friendships amidst the wreckage of high school and the confusion of mixed adolescent feelings.  It's surprising, and lovely, that the film does not seek to build a romance between Greg and Rachel.  Instead, they become friends. Real friends.

What I have trouble with, though, is that part of the story's ability to keep Rachel and Greg at arm's length seems built in to the terminal illness narrative: Greg is aware this can't go anywhere, so doesn't pursue her.  We are told at several points that "this is not a love story," and yet it is the tale of a platonic love, and one that could absolutely function without having Rachel stuck with a death sentence.  There are any number of reasons she might need a friend, any number of reasons why they could still assume a romance had no future, and any number of reasons why it would be important for Greg and Earl to attempt to make a special film just for her.  Being a teenager is hard, man, hard enough without leukemia.  As it stands, everything really good and special about this film isn't given its share of screen time. The narrative suffers the same terminal illness when, instead, we could have a vibrant, lovingly crafted movie about three people who realize they can just be friends without forced romances, without concluding at prom, without all the other bullshit.  Really, that should be enough.

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