Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"Dope" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

Every year brings a new batch of movies about awkward high schoolers transitioning to adulthood and learning important life lessons.  We've actually had a decent run of these lately, with "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "The Spectacular Now" still in recent memory.  This summer we had "Dope" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" within a few weeks of each other, both decent entries to the genre.  The two movies couldn't be more different in style and tone, but at their core, they're both about scruffy adolescent boys struggling with new relationships, being thrust into new situations, and facing that most terrifying rite of passage - the college application personal essay.

"Dope" is the stronger of the pair, because it tells its familiar story in a new context.  Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a black high school senior from a rough area of Southern California, but is determined to got to Harvard.  He and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) identify themselves as nerds: they get good grades, are obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture, and are regular targets for the neighborhood bullies and drug dealers.  However, after Malcolm is roped by a dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) into helping woo back his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the nerds are forced to juggle drugs, girls, guns, viral videos, and way too much trouble.   

It's easy to be glib, to describe "Dope" as "Boyz in the Hood" crossed with "Pineapple Express," or as a prequel to last year's "Dear White People."  It's absolutely packed with current issues, buzzwords, memes, and other bits of Millennial pop culture, though the main characters are obsessed with the '90s.  At times, it comes across as trying to hard to hit too many points at once.  However, the characters and their viewpoints feel genuine, and there's a very appealing lightness to the way a lot of the topics are handled.  Metal detectors and drug searches at school are played for laughs.  Diggy is revealed to be a lesbian, but it's not a big deal.  The big themes and big speeches are held back until the very, very end of the film where Malcolm tells us what he's learned in a monologue that feels entirely earned.   

On the other hand, "Dope" is pretty chaotic and uneven, with a few too many subplots crammed together, a villain who fell completely flat, and one of the best characters shows up way too late in the movie.  Also, some of the old tropes like Malcolm misreading Nakia's intentions get very tedious.  The execution felt amateurish as often as it hit the mark, especially in the rocky second act.  I'd chalk this up to an inexperienced director, but Rick Famuyiwa has already made several well-regarded films like "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar."  He nails the ending well enough that I came away with the film feeling mostly positive about "Dope," but I find it too flawed to recommend wholeheartedly.  It's an energetic, ambitious feature that I hope connects to and gives a voice to the right audience, but I don't think I am the right audience.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is a far more familiar kind of independent feature, with a lot of familiar characters and familiar affectations.  Our lead character, Greg (Thomas Mann), is a white high school senior for the Pittsburgh area.  He's a self-declared lone wolf who only cultivates superficial connections with others, thereby making himself the most unobjectionable kid in school.  He's been long-term associates (Greg doesn't like the word "friend") with a black kid named Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who he makes funny spoofs of classic art films with as a hobby.  Then one day, Greg's mother insists that he go and befriend a girl in his year named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia.  Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon play assorted parents.

This one got a very warm reception at Sundance earlier in the year, probably because Greg is a struggling filmmaker and film nerd with impeccable taste.  However, I found it awfully similar to a lot of other films about teenage boys of the same age and temperament, and not the better ones.  I think whether you're apt to enjoy "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" really depends on how much you relate to Greg and his woes.  Personally, I found him to be the least interesting on the three leads, and Thomas Mann delivers the weakest performance.  The film is certainly well made and has some standout sequences, but it loses so much by being so tightly focused on Greg and his particular limited view of the world.  Did we really need his glum narration underlining every damn point?

I liked Olivia Cooke, though, and I found the portrayal of Rachel's declining physical state to be sensitive and appropriate.  I wish that the movie had been about her and Earl, with Greg left in the background, perhaps.  I liked the little references to other films, and was grateful to find that they were fairly minimal to the plot.  I even liked the weird little stop-motion cutaways, though they didn't really add up to much.  It's hard to really object too strongly to "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" because it's honest and it's well meaning.  The climax sequence is perfectly lovely.  But there are an awful lot of other films out there that do nearly everything here a bit better.

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