When I first saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I referred to the film as Me and Earl. The choice to shorten the title was a subconscious one, but it was still a choice, and the choice was to avoid the elephant in the room: that a girl is going to die in the movie I’m about to see.
This is a very un-Hollywood thing to do. And the filmmakers say as much in their film, when the main character, Greg, reassures us in the voiceover: “Bear with me, I know you’re bracing to see a sweet girl die; but she doesn’t, she gets better.” Here’s the thing, she doesn’t get better. She dies. You may be mad at me for not issuing some kind of “spoiler alert” prior to me writing that last sentence; but tough, if the title of the movie didn’t spoil the ending for you, my words certainly won’t. The truth is, this is just symptomatic of a larger problem: Hollywood has trained us to anticipate happy endings, and as a result, we become infuriated if we aren’t rewarded with them (this type of fury is few and far between, because movies made inside and outside of Hollywood these days rarely end on a low note). I’m a firm believer that good movies should be metaphors for our own realities. Yes, this is a movie about filmmakers dealing with a cancer growing in the blood of their friend; however, not discounting the seriousness of the plot, this film is also about filmmakers—and by extension, the audience—dealing with a dilemma growing in the heart of Hollywood.
The film opens with these two kids, Greg (the narrator) and Earl, his co-worker, “not his friend,” which he, ironically, goes out of his way to say. These two might seem like they’re obsessed with movies, but they don’t really act like it. It’s more like movies are just a part of their lives—an indispensible part. The movies they watch inform their views of the world. One of the first movies we see them watching in the film is Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is about “the search for a golden city that doesn’t exist.” It’s no coincidence that the filmmakers use the plot of a movie within a movie as an analogy to the lure of Hollywood. Many have likened the selling of a script, or the booking of a role, to the modern day gold rush—a rush to become the next big thing.
Greg and Earl are friends with the outsiders, if friends with anyone else at all, which leads to the befriending of Rachel, the girl who’s dying from leukemia. They are the true independents, finding their way through the world outside of the system—namely, high school—by making movies as a means to coping with the often turbulent and, literally, life-threatening task of growing up in this relentless world. In this world—the world of reality and not of Hollywood movies—the hot girls squash you, your friends (excuse me, co-workers) punch you in the stomach, and people close to you die out of nowhere. It’s called life, and movies help us deal with it—movies are human antidotes to woe, when they’re made by artists, that is.
The influence of pop culture surrounds these characters: it is a wall-tacked picture of Hugh Jackman, after all, who tells Greg to stop being insensitive and not joke about death with a dying girl. Moments like this achieve two things: 1. They highlight the significant role that Hollywood plays in our lives on a daily basis, particularly the lives of our youth; 2. They emphasize the fact that Hollywood gets it wrong. Are we to ignore the elephant in the room? Are we to repress our feelings, only to let them eat us alive from the inside out? Humor, often black humor, is the life preserver in a choppy sea of sorrow, misery and the hardened indifference of the natural world. Hollywood makes its living—a very, very good living—sugarcoating this reality.
Through his narration, Greg telegraphs the beats that Hollywood often mandates in its films; specifically, that the girl doesn’t die at the end. If this had been a Hollywood movie, not only would this girl make a miraculous recovery, but Greg and Rachel would’ve also fallen in love, and it would be that love, that B-Story, which leads to her survival. Love conquers all, triumph of the human spirit, buddy stories; are these phrases applicable to your own lives? I would say, mostly, no. I know some, particularly those in this business, who argue that viewers want an escape from their lives; they are willing to pay for that escape, and Hollywood exists to provide that escape. I would argue that that tentpole mentality is just as myopic as most of the industry’s output of megabudget blockbusters.
It used to be what separated studio films from indie films was the ending: studio films ended happily, independent films ended bleakly, at worst, or ambiguously, at best. There was a time, not that long ago, when studios funded these “independent” films with depressing-ish endings. Not so anymore; not even close. Fifteen years ago, Walt Disney Pictures produced a David Lynch movie to the tune of 10 million dollars—a movie about an elderly man who embarks on a journey across state lines by way of a tractor to see his brother before he dies. As the millennium advanced, studios continued to fund independent films, but they began to not-so-subtly guide these films into mainstream territory. Take Lars and the Real Girl as an example. With a budget of 12 million, the movie explores the life of a delusional young man who dates a sex doll he procured from the Internet. This is a great indie idea; however, the film embraced a tone much more reminiscent of mainstream studio fare: it wasn’t stark, it was sentimental; it wasn’t edgy, it was wholesome. It was executed as though it was the sister to Sleepless in Seattle. Lars is an example of a number of “indies” that adopted a mainstream tone as a means of, in my opinion, attracting larger, broader audiences to more niche material. Ultimately, the movie didn’t do well at the box office. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s because the movie’s tone conflicted with itself; it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.
Fast-forward ten years later and that independent film production and distribution model that existed within the studio system—the system within which Lars was made—has completely disappeared. There are only megabudgets (movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far under a million). There’s nothing in between. Barely nothing. Even the movies that make it through no man’s land—the movies made between 5 to 20 million—are largely anomalies (i.e. movies by a handful of auteur directors, like the Andersons—Wes and Paul Thomas—who cemented their careers when indies were being regularly funded). The ones that do make it through still largely operate with mainstream mechanics. Whiplash, the kid becomes a veritable superhero in the end and conquers all with an astonishing drum solo; Boyhood, despite the odds and a series of questionable father figures, the kid has the whole world in front of him (it ends with him staring into a horizon); Birdman, the film ends with the onstage suicide of its main character (but, wait, maybe not? In a moment of magical realism, he wakes up in the hospital, injured, but optimistic, so much so, he opens the window, jumps out and flies into the great blue sky). I liked all of these films quite a bit, actually; but it does appear as though they’ve been influenced by Hollywood’s expectations.
What is refreshing about Me and Earl, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is that the movie itself flies in the face of Hollywood and its expectations. While some have criticized the film for characters that border on caricatures—the alcoholic single mother, the quasi-magical black friend, and the girl who dies to teach the self-absorbed protagonist a lesson—it’s a film that is aware of itself with respect to the movies that have come before it, and these characterizations are part of its point. Greg’s narration misleads viewers into believing they are sitting back and watching a movie that adheres to Hollywood’s rules, which guarantees a happy ending that will continue to resonate its happiness on the walk to the parking lot.
In the end of Me and Earl—excuse me, The Dying Girl—there is, well, there is a girl that dies. An innocent one, who never did anything bad to anybody. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Greg has spent the entire film making for her. On top of that, we are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.
Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours, and that effect demands that we as the audience are not lied to. As The Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past; they point us toward the origin, the end and the rebirth of ourselves. I have no doubt that most people working in the system will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films like The Dying Girl. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.
When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.