Talking Movies

September 4, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays as a tragically awful The Fault in Our Stars and Be Kind Rewind mash-up by Wes Anderson.

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Greg (Thomas Mann) navigates high school by being super-nice to all cliques, and a member of none. He avoids the cafeteria turf wars, eating with his sole friend Earl (RJ Cyler) in the office of cool history teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). (You know he’s cool because he has tats and a shouted slogan ‘Respect the Research!’) But then Greg’s odd, odd mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) when Rachel is diagnosed with leukaemia. Rachel’s weird mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is delighted at this development, and soon Greg’s eccentric dad (Nick Offerman) is hosting marathons for Rachel of the dreadful movies Greg and Earl have made. Greg is losing his treasured detachment, and, despite repeated protestations in his narration, Rachel is going to die; what will the emotional impact be on such a self-loathing figure?

You won’t care, because this film quickly becomes extremely grating. Set in Pittsburgh with an emotionally deadened hero who opens up under female tutelage this invites invidious comparisons with The Perks of Being a Wallflower; but Project X star Thomas Mann is no Logan Lerman, and novelist/screenwriter Jesse Andrews is no Stephen Chbosky. As for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who has worked on American Horror Story and Glee… This is his second feature after The Town That Dreaded Sundown. He’s not straying far from familiar settings. His whip-pans, arty tracking shots, hand-crafted animations, long-takes, narration, chapter titles, straight to camera monologues, odd perspectives, and painfully self-conscious quirkiness all play like ersatz Wes Anderson and become increasingly maddening. Having a character die of cancer doesn’t gift your movie instant profundity. Telling us twice that she’s not going to die is just annoying.

Bernthal is the only actor who escapes this farrago with dignity intact, as he has some interesting material on the nature of memory and biography to work with. Offerman is reduced to non-sequitirs and monologues akin to his workshop appearances on Conan. Shannon is creepy and disturbing as Rachel’s overly-sexualised mother, while Britton is unbelievable and bizarre as Greg’s mother pushing him into a weird gesture. Greg and Earl are ‘characterised’ by their love of Herzog, Kurosawa, and the Nouvelle Vague, which they pastiche in home-movies. The result is as infuriatingly pretentious, derivative, and mannered as the central trio in The Dreamers. So of course Greg’s former crush Madison (Katherine C Hughes) suggests making a new movie especially for Rachel. Dying is almost worthwhile if it inspires self-referential self-congratulatory cinema! This truly is Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmare conception of film-school student making films based on films, not on life; a cinematic parallel of Mannerist artists proudly painting based on Old Masters not on observed reality.

Having experienced Nico Muhly’s soundscape for the Wilton Diptych in the British National Gallery, I weep at his music being wasted trying to give Greg’s contemptible film some depth.

1/5

October 3, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director Stephen Chbosky adapts his own acclaimed 1999 young adult novel for a movie that treats high-schoolers as seriously as Adventureland did college graduates.

Socially isolated teenager Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school after a summer of depression over his best friend’s suicide. His parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) are loving and acerbic, but as little help emotionally as his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev). Charlie remains haunted by the memory of his dead aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), the one member of the family who truly loved him. However, when he strikes up a friendship with flamboyant senior Patrick (Ezra Miller), and becomes instantly smitten with Patrick’s step-sister Sam (Emma Watson), he is absorbed into their tight-knit social circle which includes Scott Pilgrim stars Johnny Simmons as self-loathing jock Brad and Mae Whitman as would-be photographer Mary Elizabeth. But even as Charlie tears thru the novels given to him by teacher Mr Anderson (Paul Rudd), and blooms into a Rocky Horror performer under the tutelage of Sam, a traumatic end to the year awaits him and these beautiful people…

The range displayed by these young stars is startling. Lerman played the charismatic rebel in Meet Bill and Miller the troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin, yet here Lerman is impressively subdued and Miller is an exuberant joy. Watson meanwhile is luminous, and I would always have regarded her as merely competent. The acting is impeccable even in the smaller roles. McDermott is wonderfully cutting, Whitman hilariously narcissistic and garrulous, and Walsh has an astonishing reaction shot. Cameoing Vampire Diaries heroine Nina Dobrev meanwhile just can’t seem to escape boyfriend drama (here with Ponytail Derek, despised by her entire family) and caring for a drug-addled younger brother. Chbosky also triumphs in making his novel utterly cinematic, from a Dexy’s Midnight Runners sound-tracked dance where Charlie truly joins Patrick and Sam’s clique, to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ blasting out on the radio as Patrick roars thru a tunnel while Sam stands up on their truck.

The central idea of the film, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” is played brilliantly as a piercing insight into the damaged relationships pursued by the central trio. Despite their cool mix-tapes, sardonic wit, and good hearts Patrick and Sam are made to feel like losers by the wider school and so accept less than they deserve. Meeting Charlie oddly may be a spur for them too. Chbosky delightfully never unequivocally locates this film in Pittsburgh until a Penguins reference in the penultimate scene, an ambiguity mirrored in our uncertainty about Charlie’s mental state and past. But unlike the frustrating vagueness concerning Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s damaged hero in The Lookout we know definitely that Charlie is fully functional, just highly medicated, and dealing with immense guilt. The patient reveal of his damaged psyche makes its eventual revelation all the more powerful as it explains many different thematic strands, including a brutal and chilling cafeteria fight scene after which Charlie blacks out.

Chbosky has made a film of great wit, charm, and emotional depth that stands comparison with Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh novels. This is a film to see and love.

5/5

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