tangerine-poster-695x1024There’s a sense of liberation in indie writer/director Sean Baker’s follow-up to his 2012 film Starlet, a film that felt weighed down by its intentions (Film Review: Misguided ‘Starlet’ fails as wannabe transcendent drama). Compared to his previous film, which suffered from contrivances and weak performances that reached for something grand but never went anywhere, his new movie, Tangerine is a sea change. It never tries to be anything more than it is, even while featuring a timely element of today’s contemporary culture: the transgender person. In doing so it becomes a grounded, human story with a consistent sense of humor that may just blow you away.

Though Baker still can’t seem to contain an over-the-top, sometimes self-conscious acting style, it works in Tangerine. Some have compared the film to the work to what Andy Warhol did with his cast of characters at The Factory, and it’s a perfect comparison, except there’s a definite plot and even a smart sense of story-telling. This is also a production by the Duplass brothers, who were pioneers in presenting comedic dramas featuring chatty characters working through their positions in life in films that were sometimes preciously self-aware, and that ethos is also present. TangerineBaker’s main characters are two transgender prostitutes working the streets of Los Angeles one warm Christmas Eve. After her release from jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) joins Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at a doughnut shop to catch up. Soon into their conversation, Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee’s no good boyfriend/pimp cheated on her with another prostitute, what she calls “a white fish … vagina and everything.” Much of the film follows Sin-Dee on a rampage trying to find out who the other woman is and then hunting her down. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds about Armenian taxi driver and family man Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Just like Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Razmik harbors his own deeper knowledge of the streets. While Sin-Dee’s out searching for her vengeance, Alexandra passes out flyers for her open mic performance later that night. Meanwhile, Razmik picks up one quirky fare after another, including a couple of drunk dudes during one of the film’s funniest moments of gross-out slapstick.

This is a comedy, but it’s also more. It’s a sincerely human and confrontational film that arrives at its insights with a brazen sense of humor and a light tough. The worlds of these people will collide in manners both visceral and profound. All the while, Baker never loses his grip of the humor that holds it all together. Though transgender characters have been treated way more seriously in earlier foreign films that I’ve written about (see this review and this one), Tangerine brings a human dimension to its characters that’s still lighthearted and dynamic. TangerineIt helps that the film has a kinetic energy, shot using iPhones. The movie opens with a sprightly, symphonic version of “Toyland” played against the white script opening credits that appear over a curiously scuffed and scratched brilliant yellow surface. Then two pairs of large, black hands appear, revealing the yellow backdrop was a worn table. The hands show a flash of wear in their own way. The fingernails are unclean, but one wrist features ornate costume bracelets. One of the hands unwraps a colorful sprinkle-covered, frosted doughnut from a greasy white bag and lays it atop the paper pouch. “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch,” says one to the other before we meet Sin-Dee and Alexandra.

There’s a fascinating amount of information and humor in the moment. This is a film of high-contrast color that appreciates the rough edges, as well. Throughout Tangerine, the brightness and the range of color amazes, especially seeing as the film was shot with a trio of 5S iPhones. The camera phones help soften the actors’ style, drawing out more naturalistic moments above those self-conscious ones. They also capture a few breathtaking wide-shots that speak to Baker’s keen eye for visuals. It’s all done with a raw but sympathetic sense of humor that still highlights the challenges of a world few really know. Baker shot the film with Radium Cheung in a fast and loose manner. Baker also channeled that energy in the editing room himself. The iPhone cameras and the transgender element in a post-Caitlin Jenner world are interesting hooks, but they wouldn’t have mattered without the passion and delight Baker transmits in making this film. It has its rough edges, some scenes go on too long and the acting doesn’t always measure up, but this could very well be a new classic in indie film.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Tangerine runs 88 minutes and is rated R (cussing, nudity and drug use). The film opened in our Miami area this Friday, July 31, for an exclusive run at O Cinema Wynwood. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations across the U.S. and has future dates scheduled through November, so if you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

amy posterYou don’t need this movie to show you Amy Winehouse was an independent spirit at heart, but feature filmmaker turned documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia hits the respectable notes in his mostly chronological documentary, Amy. As she came to fame, Winehouse spoke frankly with the BBC’s Russell Harty about her refusal to be packaged as a commodity by the management company that gave us The Spice Girls. She also says she hates pop music and admires jazz above all, a music scene she made no apologies for as elitist and unfit for the massive open air shows she would ultimately headline. She did her best to be relatable, calling her breakout second album, Back to Black, an accessible record because it was not as jazzy as her first album, Frank.

Kapadia worked with a team of editors with access to home video footage provided by family members as well as footage from every source imaginable — from paparazzi shots to YouTube fan footage to broadcast TV appearances — to splice together an intimate story about Winehouse’s all-too-speedy rise to fame and acclaim, then into a period of brutal rejection by the pop culture media machine and her untimely death. It’s remarkable how grounded Amy feels from moment to moment. Early on, Winehouse comes across as a mischievous child, as we meet her singing “Happy Birthday” with a voice that spontaneously takes over the room and draws in the camera. What’s so painful to watch is how her personality gradually loses its luster over the course of the film. The more attention she received, the more she disappeared. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch, until she pulls that ultimate disappearing act. It was a tragic loss for the music world because that Back to Black album was too good and too human for the popular music scene she got trapped in, the chorus of the hit single “Rehab” co-opted into an ironic, frivolous joke when referencing her hard times.

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That song came from a sincere place, and there’s little room for its complexity and humanity in the often flippantly referential pop music world. While her public downfall was transmitted in 15 second updates on entertainment news shows, this documentary grips you with its near two-and-half-hour run time, inviting the viewer to contemplate the person behind the tunes. I would never posit any documentary transmits a true portrait of anyone. The story it wants to tell are in the choices the director makes when he cuts together his footage. With one splice in an image, a filmmaker will exert editorial vision.

From the start, Amy seeks to make the audience aware of Winehouse’s penchant for drinking and partying as well her attraction to drugs and toxic relationships. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, is vilified as an absent parent who jumped back into her life with her success. He has famously protested the director’s alleged decision to cut short a certain statement in the film where he declares his daughter didn’t need rehab. He told “The Guardian” his soundbite was edited to remove context: “What I said was: ‘She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time.’ … They’ve edited me out saying ‘at that time’.”

Let that serve to prove that there is no such thing as a genuinely objective documentary, and let’s be honest, this film was built in the editing room. However, the big picture of Winehouse’s stratospheric rise to fame where she flamed out is sharply presented. amy 2There’s no denying the cruelty of ill-informed soundbites on late night TV and gossip shows would hurt a person such as Winehouse, who never made fame the priority over her craft. She prided herself in writing her own lyrics, based on her own experiences (she titled her first album Frank for a reason). During her rise as a pop culture icon, she appeared on “The Tonight Show” to sing “Rehab.” Jay Leno is seen complimenting her at the end of her performance. Later in the film, during her downfall, Kapadia edits in footage of another episode of “The Tonight Show,” months later. During his opening monologue, Leno cracks a joke about her drug abuse and the camera sweeps over the massive audience breaking out in laughter.

The movie is long, and if there was one section that felt like it dragged it was during the presentation of the entire footage –with the camera focused on Winehouse — as all the Grammy nominees for Record of the Year are read. It’s interesting to watch Winehouse’s blasé attitude to the nominees, which included Carrie Underwood and Rihanna. Then, when her name is announced, we get to see her surprise, a moment captured in all the trailers for this movie. At this point in the movie, one should feel a keen ambivalence to the pop music machine, as well, so it becomes a bitter-sweet moment.

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Amy is a craftily constructed experience, but it never reduces Winehouse to a victim of her circumstance or her addictions. As much as I like to single out the terrors of the mass media machine, Winehouse’s story is a complicated one. An array of characters in her life, some poisonous some supportive, provide voice-over narration over all the archival footage (there are no talking heads, beyond Kapadia’s found footage). She came from a home that was both broken but also tolerant. There are moments in the studio or her composing in her notebooks that reveal Winehouse in zones that show an artist focused but relaxed in her craft. She seems incredibly distinct in how she approached the guitar and her voice. It’s also nice to know a lot of that happened in Miami, away from the tensions of London.

With Amy, Kapadia has assembled an utterly tragic story about a truly talented young woman who went down the wrong slide of the music industrial complex. A sense of tragedy looms over the entire thing. Success is many things, but beware popularity. There hasn’t been a film that depicts the idea of “the build you up to tear you down” as vividly as Amy, which is an ultimately heartbreaking film.

Hans Morgenstern

Amy runs 128 minutes and is rated R (lots of “common” talk and drug use). The film has been playing in our Miami area for awhile, and is scheduled to continue its run through Aug. 6 (Update: Amy‘s run has been extended again at our local theaters, until Aug. 13 at O Cinema Wynwood and Aug. 14 at Tower Theater). Tower Theater invited me to a screening for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations and is already a bonafide indie hit (check out its box office) for A24 Films. If you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy A24.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-tribe-posterFor all of its gimmicks — a Ukrainian film inspired by silent movies that eschews subtitles and features a cast of deaf characters — The Tribe (Plemya) is also something else: one of the most uncomfortably disturbing films you will probably see this year. It’s a challenging movie to sit through, not just because there is no dialogue for those who don’t know Ukrainian sign language, but because the notion of the distant objective camera (with no closeups) adopted from silent film presents such an unflinching gaze. The deaf teenagers writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky follows are involved with the deaf mafia, a very real organization in the Ukraine with all the rules you might expect of organized crimes, and it’s brutal (read my interview with the director and actress in Miami New Times: Ukrainian Film The Tribe Explores the Little-Known World of the Deaf Mafia).

Grigoriy Fesenko plays the film’s lead, who we meet at a bus stop located across the street from the cameraman. In the wide shot, traffic whizzes by as he struggles to get directions from a woman to the deaf boarding school. The camera lingers so long, one can’t help but notice the rusted shell of a Trabant next to the bench, half buried by dead leaves, which speaks to the ills of post-Soviet Ukraine. The camera then follows him as he begins to walk to the school. This is a movie of long takes and distant camera. It’s a bold stylistic choice. While it often looks beautiful, it also often works to the film’s detriment.

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There’s already a barrier between the audience and the characters due to the language and lack of translation. There’s a particularly frustrating scene that kills the flim’s momentum when the two female leads, who sneak out of the boarding school to moonlight as prostitutes, enter someone’s apartment surely higher up in the mafia. The characters sit around signing to one another for some time before the girls try on T-shirts advertising Italy. Only in the next scene, when the girls appear in line for a visa to Italy, does it become clear that they are to take a trip overseas to — most likely — peddle their bodies. It takes a long time before that becomes clear, and too often you’ll be thinking about running time in scenes like these.

But then there are the moments of extreme violence and raw sex acts between Fesenko’s character and one of the girls he pimps out and finds feelings for (Yana Novikova). It’s only worth noting these scenes not as spoilers but as fair warning about what you are getting into when you buy a ticket to The Tribe. You can expect some skull crushing violence, a backroom abortion that takes its time with every tool needed for the act and a sexual encounter where the two lovers 69 for sometime, where their slurping becomes a highlight for a largely voiceless movie. As Slaboshpitsky allows the camera to roll on and on … and on and on, you may find yourself tuning out of the narrative to grumble that you get the point.

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Also, for all it’s stylishness, the distant camera makes it hard for the audience to feel anything for the characters, except for the primal difficulty of their most physical experiences. It works on that level, maybe too well. But it doesn’t work on a level of character development. It is a film about outsiders, after all, and this style stays true to that, but you need some intimacy to connect with these people if you want the audience to sit through the duration of this 132-minute movie and actually care about what happens to them. However, Novikova deserves special mention as the most expressive of the lot. From her emphatic signing to a rare moment where she must scream out, she is the film’s heart.

There’s no denying this will be a difficult film for most to sit through. The film’s violent finale takes into account deafness at a harrowing level, but some will wonder if it’s too gimmicky. Maybe I am a little mixed about this movie, but it’s not an exploitation film or some movie devised to be cruel to the audience, like that terrible movie Gaspar Noe concocted, Irreversible. The Tribe is a product of the Ukraine. Anyone who has ever visited (the only ones I know visited for research or educational purposes) can speak to the post-communist chill of the nation’s disillusioned people. The Ukraine has long struggled with a corrupt leadership that has left many disheartened citizens to struggle on their own. Now Russia wants the territory back and has used some of the most flagrantly violent means and deceits to do so. What of its underclass and handicapped? This is a country coming apart shred by shred by the hollow promises of the Soviet Empire, a specter that still looms over its empty present. Sure, Slaboshpitsky has shot an unblinking violent, perverse and often shocking movie but can you blame him?

Hans Morgenstern

The Tribe runs 132 minutes, is in Ukranian sign language without subtitles and is not rated (you’ve already been warned about content in the review). It opens in our South Florida area this Friday, July 24, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and further north, in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It could already be playing in other locations across the U.S., if not coming soon. For other screening dates, visit this link and scroll down. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse. You can also read more of my conversation with Slaboshpitsky and Novikova in this post from a few days ago:

Interviews with the director and lead actress of The Tribe

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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We are a bit past the halfway point, and the lists of what are so far the best movies of 2015 are already popping up. Here’s a good one by a friend on WordPress: Humanizing the Vacuum (and inspiration behind this post). If you prefer something more popular, take a look at these lists by the critics of Variety, though I would disagree that some films are worthy (White God and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stand as some of this year’s worst films, in my view).

As for my list, for now, below are the top 10 contenders for this best films of 2015. There’s a hint to my preferences in their order, but it could change by Dec. 31. Note: many link to reviews on Independent Ethos, so click through the titles for deeper thoughts on these titles:

Some facts about these films:  Three of them premiered in my neighborhood at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival (Flowers, Theeb and Voice Over), and one premiered at the Miami Jewish Film Festival (Gett). A couple came out a year earlier but didn’t hit theaters in Miami until this year (Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner).

I never found the time to write reviews for two of these. Let me just say Girlhood is an amazing French film following a group of girls from the projects of Paris who have more in common with American girls that you would imagine. There’s a very universal need to physically connect, and it’s depicted with incredible grace in the film by French director Céline Sciamma.

Mr. Turner deserved more recognition at the end of last year. Watching it, you will not have to second guess why it was nominated for a cinematography Oscar. It should have won over Birdman. It’s less about flash yet incredibly transporting. It also deserves notice for its lead performance by Timothy Spall. You might as well throw in production design, and heck, even editing. I literally yelled “Oh my God!” and broke out laughing between cuts of Turner spitting on a painting and a close-up of a mountain. If you never experienced it on the big screen, woe unto thee. The second best thing you can do is purchase it on blu-ray (buy it here and you’ll be supporting the Independent Ethos).

To see some contenders that are trailing behind these films, check out my list on Letterboxd (that’s a hot link). If you don’t already follow me there, you should. There’s where you will get my most intimidate reactions to films I catch — in almost real time.

Do you have a list of favorite films of 2015? Let us know in the comment section.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

posterIf you live in or near Miami, do not miss your chance to see Flowers (Loreak — the film’s official site is only in Spanish or Euskara) on the big screen. It premiered here at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, and I missed it (A hit and miss affair at boldest Miami International Film Fest yet — a MIFF 32 recap). It comes from the Basque country of Spain and is in the region’s language of Euskera. It has no distributor, so it’s not possible to point any other parts of the U.S. that might host it, but I hope my review will convince some followers of the Independent Ethos to seek it out. Maybe you will want to recommend it to your city’s film festival or your local, adventurous art house exhibitor.

The film explores love beyond what many are accustomed to from more mainstream films. Usually, the easy way to do it is to treat love with romantic sentiment and dwell on the lusty side of things if not what some would call infatuation or puppy love. But for those that have experienced the dynamic, more profound range of loves (in other words, real life), it is a much more complex thing. I’ve written about several films that capture those difficulties. Sometimes there are documentaries that do it well (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship) but more often these kinds of films come from overseas (Film Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the pain of loving).

It’s difficult concept to capture on film as well as to digest as an audience member, but writer/directors Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, working on their second collaboration, find a way to capture it and make it easy to engage with, on top of that. Their film recalls a less wordy version of the Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski. It’s that good.

Because this a special Miami-only run, Miami New Times hired me to write the review. You can read what I have to say about the film after jumping through the alternative weekly’s logo below. I wrote a rather passionate piece right after watching this film one morning. I was blown away:

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On a side note, since we are on the subject of programming at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, today is the last day to catch Güeros (Güeros: A coming of age in an ode to Mexico City — a film review) and Saturday begins the 35mm retrospective for Abdellatif Kechiche, whose film, Blue is the Warmest Color, I reference above. I have an overview of his oeuvre in the Miami New Times. Details here.

Hans Morgenstern

Loreak runs 99 minutes, is in Euskera with English subtitles and is not rated (it has some cursing and a couple of disturbing images involving death). It has its U.S. premiere theatrical run at the Coral Gables Art Cinema beginning this Friday. The cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of my review. Images are courtesy of the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

posterBalancing humor and poetically stunning black and white cinematography, Güeros tells the story of two brothers: Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) and young Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre). After one too many pranks in his native Veracruz, their single mother sends Tomás to live with his mellow slacker of an older brother in Mexico City. Sombra shares an apartment with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), who has an anger problem. When the teenage Tomás arrives in Mexico City, he soon realizes that Sombra and Santos may be even more clueless than he. They live in a dilapidated apartment that does not have electricity and are enrolled in the public university (UNAM), which is in the middle of a long strike, which took place in 1999 and lasted almost a year.  The title, Güeros refers to a slang word intended to mean “blonde” or “lighter skinned,” which, depending on circumstances, is used derisively to refer to someone who does not belong in a specific social context.

The loose narrative that Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios utilizes emphasizes the natural flow of the story, which touches on several themes, including inequality in Mexico, the complexity of the mega city, the challenges of public education and the feeling of loss the two brothers still feel after their father’s passing. The beginning of the movie shows several idle moments of aimlessness. For starters, the strike at the University speaks to the idleness and lost moments of Sombra and Santos, who are not engaged in a direct way and seem to be wasting away – as many of those who endured that strike did (they choose to go on “strike against the strike”).

The arrival of Tomás changes this dynamic, however, as the young kid is full of energy and nostalgia for those days when their dad was around. He carries a tape that his father gave him by one of the best musicians in Mexican rock history, an 927allegory for the golden days. He finds that this mythical musician is still around but is close to death, which gives the trio an excuse to venture out from their home. Ruiz Palacios shows the impact of this music without ever revealing it via lengthy shots of the characters using headphones to listen to tape and focusing on their reactions that shift from moved to amazed and ends in a deeply affected state. The genius of this strategy is that it allows the music to be part of the characters, not the focus of the film itself.

Throughout their adventure, the three characters find themselves travailing the city, which at times shows a disconnect between them and the variety of characters found in each of the neighborhoods. Güeros’ portrayal of Mexico City is one of the most honest depictions in the film. An ode to one of the most complex cities in Latin America, Güeros explores a journey of self-discovery that parallels an exploration of Mexico City in an intimate, real way.

The film takes on a self-referential and funny turn once the trio end up in the University campus, where the strike is in full swing. One of the protesters turns his attention directly to the camera and starts talking about the film as it is, in a straightforward way, making fun of the film itself. The conversation immerses the audience in the filmmaking process itself929 and removes the real or perceived barrier between the director and the audience, also doing away with any lengthy expository dialogue. Ruiz Palacios cuts straight through the typical Hollywood conventions and addresses us and his actors in a dialogue devoid of fluff, a narrative that has a sense of humor but questions its social relevance at the same time.

At the protest, we also meet Ana (Ilse Salas), one of the leaders of the student movement and Sombra’s love interest. The encounter is intense at a personal level but is also one of the key moments that Ruiz Palacios uses to showcase the embedded social inequality that exists in Mexico City. The debates at the university ring so true, it feels like one is experiencing the university on a vividly genuine level, in a script that could have only been written by someone who was personally impacted by that protest. Ruiz Palacios has described in an interview that he was close to attending UNAM when the protest erupted but learned first-hand from friends how it affected hundreds of people who both supported and were against the university takeover.

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This self-referential humor happens once more when Sombra has a fit at an elegant party that Ana takes the trio to, and directs a rant to the crowd – and by extension, the film’s audience — about the hypocrisy in Mexican art house films that parade non-trained actors and complain about the country’s ailments abroad. The self-referential awareness of the precarious situation of art that can be at once constructive and destructive reveal a filmmaker who is keenly aware of the sociopolitical issues in Mexico and takes a constructive stand via the same medium he criticizes. This is surely an art-house film that does away with clichés by directly poking fun at them in a playful way.

The black and white film, presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, combined with the naturalistic acting style speaks to the influence of the French New Wave, but this film is so much more. The narrative encompasses an honest account of a sociopolitical reality that is tough to encapsulate. The film also shows a coming of age of sorts for Sombra, who is alienated and detached at the onset of the film but finds the courage to connect to his little brother, his friend and his love interest throughout the journey to finally come to terms and become part of the world he inhabits. In a nod to 400 Blows, Riva Palacio ends the film with a shot of Sombra who turns around to the camera with an all-knowing gaze that signals growth and a recognition of the self. Güeros never takes itself too seriously but remains a poetic film.

Ana Morgenstern

Update: Güeros is coming back to South Florida for an exclusive run in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It opens there on July 17 (details here).

Güeros runs 102 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (it has cursing, smoking and some sexuality). It opened this past Friday, June 26, in our Miami are at the Coral Gables Art Cinema where it plays until July 2. For dates in other parts in the U.S. and Canada, visit this page, where there are dates scheduled through September. All images are courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Me and Earl posterSince its buzzy debut back in January at Sundance, I am sure the issue has come up a billion times: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has an issue with tokenism. During a preview earlier this month it was hard to keep my mind off how isolated the lead character is from his peers, and it translates in the movie in an egocentric manner that becomes hard to shake off for far too much of the movie. By the time the payoff arrives, the cost feels too high, and you just want to be rid of this titular “Me” character.

Thomas Mann gives Greg an awkward charm for a guy who does not wish to stand out at his high school. He is ironically gregarious, trying to make friends with everyone, from goths to jocks, as to blend into the background. Yet, the only person he considers a friend, but refers to as his “co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American kid from a destitute neighborhood he has known since childhood. They make home movies together that are naïve-art adaptations of classic movies (their version of The Third Man is entitled “The Turd Man”). But this collaborative relationship and shared affection for the film canon and their smart aleck reinterpretations never seems to fulfill him. It is only after he gets to know terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke) that he finds a true friendship and a genuine urge to create something original at the casual behest of Earl. That he has to learn this from a “dying girl” offers a grim premise that could have said a lot about the disconnection of earthy, grounded-in-reality relationships had the film presented us with solidly developed characters in scenes that don’t feel trite and falter to their manipulative, sentimental designs.

No one is allowed to stand out beyond Greg, and it’s hard to find him likable because the character only seems driven by exterior forces. His mother (Connie Britton) is the one who pushes Greg to spend time with Rachel after she is diagnosed with Leukemia. After he shows up at Rachel’s house, he is invited in by her ridiculously depressed, wine-swilling mother (Molly Shannon). Rachel sees through the farce of Greg’s appearance. Still, after a cynical chat in her bedroom about her prognosis and the abundance of pillows in her room and Greg’s reference to masturbation, Rachel is charmed. The viewer gets an easy way in to Greg because Rachel, a cancer-stricken cipher, who shows little autonomy, is reduced to a person trapped in her bedroom filled with craft projects of her design to characterize her.

Earl suffers his own reduction. He is Greg’s sidekick who either offers callous statements (his catch phrase seems to be “Did you feel dem titties?”) or profound statements that shake Greg image-abd1674e-0988-4c0f-9fc6-0215f92bbc39out of his somnambulant egotism. Earl has an older brother (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who figures into the film in flashbacks to the younger days of the two friends. He’s a mere bully who sits on the porch to his family’s ramshackle house and sicks his pit bull on Greg whenever he comes by. There’s not much more to say about Earl, as the only benefit of his presence is as a kind of conscience for Greg, when he needs it. Otherwise, they have a miniscule almost ambivalent relationship.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, brings his talents from television (“Glee” and “American Horror Story”) to infuse the film, adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews who wrote the original novel, with a saccharine preciousness that grows tiresome quick. Gomez-Rejon overwhelms the drama with wearisome references to Criterion Collection DVDs, making for a convenient litmus for Greg and Earl’s taste for cinema and — God forgive him — about 20 pieces of music from Brian Eno’s catalog of early masterworks, even including obscure collaborations with Krautrock greats Cluster. It’s great music, but beyond a few seconds of atmospheric extra-diegetic melodies for transitions between scenes, the music never has space in the film to meld with the drama and settle in as thematic. Peter Jackson did it much better a few years ago in The Lovely Bones (Brian Eno and The Lovely Bones), a film for which Eno also composed or reshaped his music. The only exception is the use of “The Big Ship” during the film’s climax, a piece that also accompanied a similarly dramatic moment in The Lovely Bones, so even the decision to allow that piece to breath in Me and Earl feels like it loses some credibility. 

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Criterion product placement and the abuse of Eno’s music can hardly save this film from its problematic story. Referencing so much great art does not transfer over to Gomez-Rejon’s film. Early on, the film is weighed down by the tropes of high school malaise, and when Greg finally comes to his revelation that he has lost a friend, the film hits every trite note that turns loss of a loved one into sentimentality to weary effect. Depending on what triggers the tears for you, the filmmakers try to bring it up. Sure, there were people sobbing all around me in living surround sound, but all I saw was manipulation of heartstring plucking.

Beyond its precious tone that minimizes death to a sentiment, obscuring an egocentric story about a kid who (maybe) learns empathy at the cost of losing a friend to death, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has that bigger issue: tokenism. A chance for Greg, a white kid, to learn about his best friend and recognize him beyond “co-worker” is never developed. They pair up as outcasts who never connect. Even worse, Rachel is presented as a darling young person about to die throughout the film, as if that’s the only thing that characterizes her as a human being. For all its sincerity, the movie is ultimately a disappointing appropriation of cool without genuine heart that plays the audience in a rather condescending way. A lot people will love it, but it’s only because it’s pushing easy buttons that make us human. Still, there’s nothing really human about this movie, which feels like was produced by an algorithm instead of someone with heart.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 (references to sex, drugs with some salty language). It opens in limited release at several multiplexes in our Miami area (visit this page for dates screening locations near you in other cities). For indie supporters, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on July 1. All images in this review are courtesy of Fox Searchlight who also invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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