Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won the Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There’s a particular reputation that films which win Sundance tend to have, those of quirky and youthful sensibilities that result in a lot of the same ideas getting regurgitated ad nauseum. That’s not to suggest that these films are necessarily poor, but rather that their discipline and craft come from a school meant to appeal to festival jurors and programmers. They’re constructed in a manner that befits a certain sensibility – it’s not all dissimilar to how a Marvel film is constructed and branded. For every Batman Returns there are many more Batman & Robins. For every Whiplash there are exponentially more Way, Way Backs or Joe Swanberg films.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will also close out this week’s Chicago Film Critics’ Film Festival. It’s a major coup for the festival, which, in its third iteration, has developed a healthy following at the Music Box Theater following scant attendance during its inaugural Rosemont opening. More celebrities! More festival winners! The lineup proves to be a healthy assortment of culled festival favorites – culled further by critics in programmer’s clothes. There’s some genuinely intriguing selections though, most notable being Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What screening on Monday night.
But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl closes out the festivities on Thursday, May 7 and as any programmer will tell you, there’s an aura associated with any film given opening or closing night duties (for the record, Joe Swanberg’s 2,432,535th film opens the festival and I hear it’s about middle-class white folks talking about their problems. All improvised btw).
If Birdman was a film meant for its actors, then it would not be a stretch to suggest that Gomez-Rejon’s film feeds into the pretentions of film critics. The film centers on a cinephile named Greg (Thomas Mann) during his senior year in high school. His room is decorated with the misfit toys of a Criterion Collection junkie, from a well-placed Berlin Alexanderplatz poster on the side of his bookcase, across from a 400 Blows poster placed above his bed (his nightstand appears to have a Directors on Directors book by David Thompson and Ian Christie). The film is decorated to reward a viewer who knows what ornates Greg’s room, but it never looks beyond these superficial totems.
This becomes problematic as the picture extends to a personal crisis that centers on a cancer-addled teen named Rachel (Olivia Cooke). The narrative posits that in Rachel’s personal crisis, Greg is to uncover his own vitality. A character that weaves in and out of social cliques within his school, it becomes alarming to see a film that exploits a dying manic-pixie dream girl as a launch pad to enlighten its white male character.
Compounded by a manic stylistic approach – Gomez-Rejon is best known for directing episodes of American Horror Story where his German expressionistic flourishes fit comfortably within that show’s text – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the sort of Sundance film that’s unaware of its own socially alienating whiteness. Its character comfortably disassociates from his solitary black friend by designating him as a co-worker; perhaps its best that Spike Lee’s solitary Criterion collection entry Do the Right Thing is hidden from view.
It’s not enough that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl casually ascribes to racist and misogynistic tendencies, or that these characteristics feed into a white heternormative hegemony, but that these qualities are so ostentatiously associated with the collective Sundance experience – and that these experiences have a groundswell of support from critics. Just as Birdman, a film about a pretentious white actor that represents an old-guard of didactic and privileged performers exercising their sovereignty, serves as a casual reminder of a racial hierarchy, so does Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: the universe orbits its concerns around the experiences of the hegemony.