“Footing” is not a word you see or hear a lot. For some reason it jumped into my mind recently when I started to think about two movies I’ve watched in theaters of late. I hadn’t planned on writing about either of them, but wondering about “footing” — when strong, a balanced outlook and approach that allows a rewarding life — has nudged me to confront my PC’s keyboard.
I didn’t comment on these movies till now not because they aren’t worthy. Rather, time-wasting little ol’ me simply didn’t find the time. In fact, these are fine movies. I’ll See You In My Dreams, and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl premiered in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Both went into theatrical release this spring. The movies are serious, with a light touch that keeps things friendly and personable. I’ll See You earns a three (out of four) star rating from me. I’ll bestow four stars on Me And Earl.
For much of the world’s masses, just staying alive is more than enough of a challenge. Footing is among the least of their worries. But for billions of others, middle class Americans for example, the pastures are open and the possibilities for a good life are real. Still, gaining one’s footing isn’t necessarily easy even for them. Nor is maintaining what has been gained. The slings, the arrows . . . who knows what’s coming around the bend? Most of us, luckily, eventually find our footing. And if we stumble somewhere along the line, we’re apt to get it back.
I’ll See You In my Dreams and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl are about a lot of things, including death, but footing I think is quite key. I’ll See You looks at the life of one Carol Petersen, a 70-ish California lady whose traction is pretty good at the movie’s beginning but definitely is in need of adjustment. Me And Earl’s primary character and narrator, Greg Gaines, is, as the movie opens, a high school senior in Pittsburgh whose feet have yet to be planted firmly on life’s terrain. Despite their age gap, Carol and Greg aren’t all that different. If their movies could cross-populate, they’d probably become pals, observing the potentially fixable weak spots in each other’s psyche.
Blythe Danner plays Carol, and does so very well. It’s a role that Danner, deep into her career, never saw coming. I watched Danner interviewed on television not long ago and she bowed down to the screenwriters and producers who brought the script her way.
A widow for 20 or more years, Carol is comfortable with her life. Money isn’t a problem. She spends time with a few close friends, sunbathes beside her pool behind her modern pad, and adores maybe more than anything her dog. But Carol drinks too much and doesn’t have all that great a relationship with her adult daughter. Something is missing. Her footing is somewhat tenuous. She’s a little dead inside.
To the rescue come two new entries into her social stream, one much younger than she, one maybe a little older. Both become her good friends. The young guy, Lloyd, (nicely portrayed by Martin Starr) and the cool, calm and charismatic older gent, Bill, (a beautiful turn by Sam Elliott) in their own ways widen Carol’s eyes to life’s possibilities. Love, needless to say, falls into that category. Carol’s footing, before the credits roll, is looking better.
I found Me And Earl And The Dying Girl irresistible. It is colorful, witty and perceptive. And very human. The plot, dialog, camerawork, editing — ooh la la. Ditto for the acting and the balance at the movie’s heart between comic exaggeration and sadness. Thomas Mann portrays Greg, a young man of extremely bright mind who is badly in need of self-confidence. There are people who love him — his parents, at least one school teacher, at least one peer (Earl Jackson, marvelously acted by RJ Cyler) — but Greg barely realizes or believes that he is loveable. Quick-thinking and creative as the dickens, self-doubting Greg thinks little of the amateur careers that he and Earl have as clandestine film makers. For a few years the two have retitled classic movies and then filmed zero budget versions whose plots idiotically and hysterically fit the new titles. The Third Man becomes The Turd Man. Midnight Cowboy becomes 2:48 PM Cowboy. You get the idea.
Greg does his best to get along with the various cliques in his high school, working hard to have only peripheral relations with all. His degree of self-worth doesn’t allow him to commit to more than that. One day, though, his world is shaken. His mother comes to him with the news that a classmate whom he barely knows, Rachel Kushner, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mother and Rachel’s mother are friends, and Greg’s mom wants him to visit Rachel (the excellent Olivia Cooke), to reach out to her. Greg isn’t big on reaching out, doesn’t really know how. Reluctantly and awkwardly he tries, and over time there is a payoff. The payoff is love, which flows between the two teens obliquely and in spurts, just as with many folks at any age. Rachel, the wiser one, helps Greg to start pointing his compass northward. Greg’s footing begins to take hold. I left the theater feeling certain that, years later, Greg would be doing just fine in life.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, I’d say, is a pretty perfect movie. Not quite the case for I’ll See You In My Dreams. One thing that struck me wrong about I’ll See You is the drinking. Carol seems to have a wine glass grafted to her right hand, even when her world expands for the better. The movie never questions her desire to self-numb. And one or two scenes in I’ll See You drift too lazily. Other than that the movie rings true. The characters are real and full, and the script’s magnifying glass brings out the details of a life moving out of neutral.