The Life Saving Power Of Cinema
By Johnny Pomatto
We all watch movies to be entertained, but they can serve a greater purpose and provide us with therapeutic comfort when we need it most. Two movies currently in theaters, (one based on fiction, the other on fact) demonstrate the life-saving power of film better than any other example in recent memory.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
While I do my best to go into every movie I see with a completely open mind, sometimes I simply have to acknowledge that some movies out there just weren’t made for me. This is why I can’t fully begrudge someone’s love of a film like “The Hunger Games,” even though I find it a complete bore. This time last year there was a niche film that seemed to have a surprising amount of crossover appeal, the film adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars,” and while I was able to admire some better than average performances in it, I still found it to be typical, by the books, young-adult fare. Jesse Andrews’ film adaptation of his teen novel ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL features many of the same tropes that one might expect from a weepy “teen with cancer” movie, but it spoke to me in a way that “Fault” never was able to do, primarily because I found the characters so real and instantly recognizable. It’s possible that I may be overly biased in favor of this movie because the person that I recognized most in this movie was none other than myself.
Thomas Mann plays Greg, and there’s nothing about Greg that stands out as especially remarkable and he’s certainly not the gorgeous heartthrob we’re used to seeing in these kinds of films. Neither social outcast nor notably popular, Greg prefers to go by unnoticed. He even claims not to have any friends, refusing to acknowledge his close attachment with the titular “Earl,” referring to him only as his business partner. What business is this? Well, Greg and Earl are obsessed with classic films, and this was the moment when I started to get excited. Never have I seen a movie for and about teens that knowingly referenced the films of Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, and Powell & Pressburger, to name but a few. Greg even has a shelf of Criterion Collection DVD’s that rivals my own collection. Oh, who am I kidding? Nobody can compete with my collection, but I digress. As if their film preferences doesn’t make them outcasts already, Greg and Earl’s primary hobby consists of taking these films that their classmates have already never heard of, and making silly parodies of them. These titles, which include “Pooping Tom” and “2:48 PM Cowboy,” frequently made me laugh out loud, and it’s a good thing I was laughing because the rest of the movie deals with considerably darker subject matter.
The aforementioned “Dying Girl” is Rachel, a classmate of Greg’s whom he has no relationship with, until his hippie beatnik parents, (a note-perfect Connie Britton and Nick Offerman), encourage him to befriend when she’s suddenly diagnosed with Leukemia. For Greg, who has made such a conscious effort to not get too close to anyone, this is a task with seemingly no reward. He can’t imagine that his uncomfortable presence could possibly make Rachel feel better, and he assumes that this doomed friendship can only make him feel worse. Even the hope of a weepy romance between the two is almost immediately ruled out, a relief to both the awkward Greg, as well as to myself, so thankful that I wouldn’t have to sit through a retread of the plot points from “Fault in Our Stars.” ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is a film about something more important than a first love marred by sadness. Instead it’s about friendship, which doesn’t get nearly as much focus and energy put towards it in the Hollywood climate. The film realizes that potentially losing a close friend to illness is a complicated enough topic without mixing it with feelings of love along the way. Eventually, Greg and Earl attempt to make an original film as a gift for Rachel, overwhelming Greg with pressure of having to express his creative side for someone other than himself. The boy who avoided establishing friendships for fear of losing them suddenly has to face the real fact that some friendships have to actively be fought for in order to keep, while others may be lost while he remains powerless to save them.
The film does hit a few of the beats you’d expect from a young-adult novel, though I was astonished to discover that I never fully knew where the story was heading. Not only did the twists and turns continually surprise me in unexpected ways, but the subject matter was presented with a tremendous sense of humor that lifted even the saddest moments into a light and airy tone that always reassured me to stay transfixed on the screen. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon utilizes tricks such as stop-motion animation, obscure but well-earned references, and sardonic voice over to tell this fairly familiar story in a totally unique way. Rejon’s style reminds me very much of the earlier films of Wes Anderson, when that young director didn’t yet have the budget or the trustful audience to create the elaborate, life-sized dioramas that he dreamed of, instead settling for subtle homages to films that nobody would recognize but himself. Rejon has hardly settled with this film, bringing a freshness to a genre that I thought had no surprises left in store for me. Given his clear respect and understanding for the classic films displayed in this film, I would say that Rejon’s options are limitless in terms of where he can go from here. I can’t wait to see where he ends up next.
Even the worst movies can provide us with some fleeting escapism from our everyday lives. This is nevermore true than for the teenage children of the Angulo family, in Crystal Moselle’s new documentary THE WOLFPACK. The offspring of a Peruvian immigrant and a Midwestern mother, the seven Angulo children, (6 boys and 1 girl, each with their toothy grins and hair down to their waists), have led an incredibly sheltered life. Unclear if inspired by severe over-protection or familial religious beliefs, the Angulo’s spent almost their entire adolescence inside their lower east side apartment, sometimes going years without leaving it. Their only source of relief and window to the outside world is the thousands of movies they’ve watched over the years, which make such an impression on them that they spend almost all of their time making elaborate recreations of their favorite scenes, which they film for nobody to see but themselves. These one-room pageants are remarkably impressive, with costumes like a Batman suit made out of cardboard, and impressions of stars such as John Travolta and Steve Buscemi being shockingly on point. Early scenes of the brothers remaking “Reservoir Dogs” shot by shot are very amusing, but Moselle luckily has purer motivations than to just stuff her film with adorable sequences of the boys performing tricks like animals in a zoo.
Moselle first discovered the brothers when the eldest and most adventurous, Mukunda, decided he had had enough and ventured out into the world alone for the first time while wearing a homemade mask of Michael Meyers from the “Halloween” films. Moselle witnessed his behavior and ultimate arrest, and was determined to learn more about the family. It’s unclear how or why the boys’ father would allow the intrusion into their lives, even after the family’s secret is revealed. The father figure spends almost the entirety of the film locked in his own room drinking wine, which is a shame because the film occasionally really lacks answers that one could imagine their father could provide if he were only willing. Moselle had little experience behind the camera, and sometimes in the earlier moments of the process that’s all too clear. I wondered if she was fully capable of both documenting the boys’ introduction to independence as well as initiating it. Numerous sequences seem to be presented like scientific experiments, just to see how the boys would react to new experiences, such as their first theatrical movie or stepping into the ocean for the first time at Coney Island. That’s not to say there isn’t a great deal of fascinating revelations made from observing these boys’ interaction in the busy metropolis that they’ve previously only viewed through their windows. Mukunda does most of the speaking for the group and seems to be the most comfortable with his new predicament, though I continued to wonder if any of the teenage brothers would ever be able to live fully independently of their father’s home, or if a few of them even wanted to, growing up with so many dreams but also fears of what was beyond their doors. It’s easy to escape into a movie when you know that you’ll be able to return to the safety of your room when cameras stop rolling, but the boys typically look uncomfortable in public environments and I wondered if they would have been so brave in exploring if they didn’t have a documentary film crew leading the way.
I don’t mean to accuse the film or Moselle of exploiting the Angulo family, or suggest that the events feel too staged, as the storytelling is often intentionally and effectively leaving out gaps where many changes and decisions have been made, but I did sometimes feel like Moselle was in more control than the film required her to be. Still, THE WOLFPACK is a strange, funny, and deeply mysterious film that left me with a lot of questions afterward. Though sometimes unanswered questions isn’t a bad thing when one gets the feeling that a documentary’s subjects might be better off if they were left alone to figure things out for themselves.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes