Me and Earl and Blah and Blah
Before I get into this, I have to say that I’m dealing with the filmic version of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I understand there is a novel as well, but I haven’t read it and probably won’t read it because it’s a young adult novel and that’s not really my jam. Also, there are a bunch of spoilers in this post, so know that.
So. Disclaimer disclaimed.
In this bildungsroman, we have the story of Greg, a distant, pessimistic teenager who is completely disconnected from his life. Greg has a best friend named Earl, though he consistently refers to Earl as a “co-worker” instead of friend because the two make horrible (but kind of funny) parodies of classic films together. Greg’s parents seem rad, but he’s bored. At his ridiculously pompous and obviously wealthy high school, and I cannot stress the RIDICULOUS and the POMPOUS in terms of the characterizations of this film, Greg skates through unnoticed because of his disconnection to any one clique or, for that matter, personality. He’s bland, the zwieback of characters.
Then he meets Rachel.
Forced by his mother into hanging out with a girl recently diagnosed with cancer, Greg slowly develops what seems to be a real friendship with her. So many scenes show them talking about the absurd and the deep, reading books in her room, taking walks, whatever. Their friendship appears to grow as Rachel listens to Greg most of the time talking about whatever and kind of listening as she throws in some knowledge every once in a while. During all this, Rachel battles her invasive cancer; we see Greg talking to her mostly in her room, with her in comfortable clothes and a turban. Earl finally mentions their films, and Rachel spends a great deal of time watching them while Greg and Earl spend a good deal of time making a film for her, especially important because she turns 18 during this year and decides to stop all cancer treatment, which has been ineffective throughout. After a falling out, Greg decides to get over his own giant pile of shittiness and visit her in the hospital, to which she has been confined to spend her last days. We see the hospital staff rushing around the room while Greg’s film washes over them, as Rachel slips into a coma and dies shortly after his visit. Later, Greg snoops in her room at her funeral and finds a present for himself, and intricately carved book, urging him to decide what to do with his life and just go to college already.
Damn, it’s like, now he’s a person! That’s cool, right?
Except that it’s, like, not. I should rewrite that sentence above to say something like this:
Then he meets Rachel and totally uses the complexity and importance of her life as a stepping stone into one tiny decision like going to college (maybe) while she fucking turned 18 and decided to die and we didn’t get to hear about that.
First we have the idea of maturation. Greg’s decision to go to college is treated like it’s the actual Holy fucking Grail filled to the brim with bull semen and panther sweat, it’s so grown-up and masculine. The film applauds this decision, and I keep saying decision because I don’t know if he actually went and failed out or switched majors 20 times or whatever because it ends there. Also have you met a college freshman recently, for real? I teach those fools, and I love them but THEY ARE 88 EMOTIONS WRAPPED IN PAJAMAS AND PASTED TO A SMARTPHONE. How is this more adult than, I don’t know, the decision to cease medical treatment and pass away in a relatively painless manner, rather than fight the inevitable out in a hospital’s sterile environment like Rachel did? Why is THIS the focus over THAT?
Second, let’s talk about being self-aware. Another part of Greg’s transformation from baby to Hercules is his realization that yes, he does actually have human feelings that lead to human friendships because he’s a fucking human. After Rachel passes, he does mourn the death of his friend, and we are to see that through his relationship with her he has connected to himself and his life. Again, though, I have to ask – what is the value of someone being moved by someone else’s story COMPARED TO THE ACTUAL MOVING STORY? That girl turned 18 and knew she didn’t want to have a miserable, limping end to her life, so she decided to let it play out. If that’s not self-awareness on the level of joining AARP then I don’t know what is. I wonder if asking this is too much of the film, though, because it isn’t self-aware as a text. The stereotypes and clichés it falls back on in everything from costumes to secondary characters scream “we’re not being lazy and reliant, we’re COMMENTING on these things, bro” without actually accomplishing that whatsoever.
I’m serious: what is the cultural value of building a bildungsroman, a perfectly fine and necessary plot formula, around the obfuscation of a woman’s more complicated and beautiful story? Obviously, this silences woman and makes their stories secondary, which is just stupid. At every turn of this girl’s story we have Greg’s petty shit superimposed without cessation; even during her death, his film literally colors the entire room so that we don’t see her whatsoever. I don’t really need to say this again, do I? Oh, except I do, because HERE IS ANOTHER FUCKING MOVIE DOING THE SAME STUPID SHIT.
Further, what does it say about our culture that we would show an important part of a boy’s life in that manner? It’s a huge cultural misstep to assume that men can’t go through some part of maturation without pushing down a woman’s voice, but we see this type of plot line all the time. This type of story not only sucks the life out of the female character, it inherently weakens the male protagonist because the comparison leaves him so lacking. Why would we want to portray our people that way, people?
You can tell a man’s story without it hinging upon the patronization of a woman’s story.
Once more: You can tell a man’s story without it hinging upon the patronization of a woman’s story.
Yet the critical reception of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was generally positive. It won at Sundance, y’all, the Audience Award AND the Grand Jury Prize, and almost of the reviews for this film were appreciative, positive, raving even, and I’m not even touching the racism built into Earl’s character or the base stereotyping of the other characters. There’s a problem here when we resort to showing a threadbare story of male progress that ignores female strength and fucking applaud that shit. How many more times are we going to have a text where the most interesting, complicated character DOESN’T EVEN GET CREDIT IN THE TITLE but is the driving force behind the whole story, and that character has to be a woman? What is the fucking appeal of this story anymore? I wish I had some answers that weren’t like “boycott this shit” or “just STAHP” because these aren’t answers, they’re pipe dreams. I guess what I’m asking for is at least recognition that this movie, this narrative arc and juxtaposition of characters, is bullshit.
I mean, pull yourself together, Hollywood.
We have enough stories with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl propelling male change, and now we have one with a Real Person Whose Story Is Cool But Shut Up OK propelling male floundering. That’s not progress, dudes – it’s deviation.