GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO: The Tribe and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


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Warning: SPOILERS
tribeThe Tribe is a new Ukrainian film in which all the characters are deaf and speak in sign language (and not just any ole sign language, but a particular Ukrainian dialect of sign language, which means, from what I understand, that of those of you who can read western European sign language, only 20% will be able to understand it).
But as presented by writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, it is also a movie in which there are no subtitles. Which means, most of you will probably never really know exactly what anyone is saying.
In other words, The Tribe is a silent film without intertitles. The only sound, in fact, is that of the ambient kind (I can’t even recall the use of music in the background). Slaboshpitsky even exaggerates this sound of feet shuffling down corridors, body parts slamming into each other while having sex or conversations, doors creaking; one might go so far as to say that the ambient sound used here is, well, extremely ambienty.
At first, I found this to be an interesting aesthetic exercise. And people have reacted very positively to it. When I first heard about it at AFI last year, people were very excited and kept recommending it. It has won some very prestigious awards (including three at Cannes). And when I saw it in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater, it was a sold out crowd on a Sunday night.
At the same time, other AFIers expressed certain doubts about the film and I fear I must be honest and say I also have some of those selfsame reservations.

For a while, The Tribe does hold attention. But after that while, it feels more and more like a novelty and once the novelty wears off, I’m not sure that there’s enough there there.

In fact, I would say that The Tribe, in many ways, demonstrates why we just don’t do silent films anymore and when we do do them, we do them only as a one off.

The basic premise of the story revolves around a high school teen who for some reason never revealed has been sent to live at a boarding type school for the deaf. He immediately gets thrown in with the bad kids who reject him until he proves his worth as a fighter, whereupon he is then made part of their group, or tribe, I suppose.

This is a group that, with the support of one of the teachers, shakes down other students; goes out at night and mugs people walking home from stores; and perhaps most interestingly, sneaks out with two of the female students and pimps them out at a local truck stop.

Actually, so far, so good. This is a set up rife with possibilities. And then complications ensue when our hero falls for one of the women being prostituted and ends up at odds with the powers that be.

Tom Brown’s School Days it ain’t.

However, it’s not long before cracks appear in the foundation and the movie worked less and less for me the more it went on and on.

I found the world of The Tribe to be quite unusual overall, but I don’t mean in the use of deaf actors or lack of subtitles or even the feral violence and graphic sex (the last of which is used to promote the movie—if you see a photo from the film, it’s most likely to be the central character going at it with the prostitute).

No, for me it more lies in such plot turns as when a student pimping out the girls is unintentionally run over by a truck he doesn’t hear coming and the authorities don’t seem to wonder just what one of the students at this school is doing wondering around a truck stop in the middle of the night.

It’s a world where our hero kills a teacher and there’s no fall out from it. It’s as if nobody even noticed, which is a pretty neat trick if you ask me.

So it’s a world where things seem more to happen so the writer/director can shock the audience, rather than to grow organically out of this particularly backdrop.

But even with all this, more pertinent as to why I didn’t really enjoy the film is that I never had an emotional connection to anyone or anything that was happening.

Part of this was because there were no subtitles, so I was often spending my time trying to figure out what was going on rather than immediately experiencing what was taking place. In fact, about a third of the time, I had no idea why what was taking place (though I eventually was able to put everything together more or less—I think).

In addition, Slaboshpitsky makes two stylistic choices which are, again, intriguing at first, but ultimately a bit too alienating. The shots are made up of very long takes (there are 34 in all apparently) and the camera is kept at a distance. Because of this, I, as an audience member, was also kept at a distance and could never really become involved with the characters.

Even that isn’t really the problem. I’m sure Slaboshpitsky purposely chose these alienating techniques because he wanted us to have an emotional distance.

But because of these distancing techniques, I never believed in the reality of the central character. In fact, he never felt more than a construct rather than a real person to me.

I never believed he actually fell in love with one of the prostitutes, but did it more because that’s what people do in movies like this. (In return, what little feeling the prostitute has for him seems to be there mainly because when he has sex with her he doesn’t just have sex, he gives her an orgasm, which is a standard, but rather stereotyped way of portraying women in films).

And often the story gets off of him for long periods of time, especially during some scenes where it looks like everyone’s trying to get the prostitutes visas to go to Italy for some reason (maybe to work the crowds at a world soccer match, I don’t know).

These scenes don’t strongly affect the central character until the end; and if that’s there only purpose for existence, then to me, it’s like trying to kill a flea with an elephant—there were far easier ways to force the climax. So instead of scenes that more fully explore the central character, we get some irrelevant subplots that go on far too long and are hard to follow.

And without a central character here that I found realistic, I found it hard to care what happened.

Now, the movie ends with a very, very shocking scene (and a very good one). But at the same time, I was distracted because there was something off here.

It has to do with something that many people might consider nitpicky, but still. The way the rooms are set up, our hero is put in one with three bad guys and four beds. The head bad guy has a room to himself—two beds, but he bunks alone.

At the end, our hero enters two different rooms, presumable the ones where these bad guys live. But this time round, each room has two guys in two beds. And with that I was confused as exactly who these people were in these rooms.

I don’t know if this was a continuity issue or I just didn’t get what was happening at the end.

Which, it seems, is a pretty good metaphor for the movie as a whole.

me and earlMe and Earl and the Dying Girl from writer Jesse Andrews (who wrote the novel) and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is another in a recent spate of coming of age films that seem to be overly proliferating in movie theaters these last few years; stories like The Spectacular Now, The Faults in Our Stars, The Way, Way Back, The Kings of Summer, The Hunger Games…well, okay, not the last one exactly, but you get my drift.

I’m not sure why we’re seeing so many (and my memory could be going, there may have always been this number), though I’m sure part of it is because there is a whole new generation of writers and directors who are making their first films and they have to make a movie about something.

And that’s great.

At the same time, I also hope it’s not because these new writers and directors just don’t have anything to say so they do the one thing that writing classes and gurus say you are never supposed to do: write your autobiography since no one cares about your life except you.

Overall, these movies have been, well…okay, with rare exceptions like The Perks of Being A Wallflower, which was one of the finest movies of its year. The films may rarely rise to the level of the classics in the genre like Rebel Without A Cause, The 400 Blows and Murmur of the Heart, or more recent foreign examples like Something in the Air or The Dreamers (why do kids coming of age in foreign countries always seem to lead more exciting lives?), but they’re not bad and are more often than not…rather okay.

For the record, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is probably better than most, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Perks…

I think there’s a reason for this. I mean, it has much going for it. It’s very sincere, but not in a fake, cloying way. It’s often very witty. The plot does keep your attention. And it has one hell of an ending.

But there’s this central character, see. His name is Greg. And he has this philosophy of life. He doesn’t want to be friends with anyone. And I must say, he manages to do this in a most insightful and clever way—he’s friends with everyone.

Because believe me, the man who is friends with everyone, is friends with no one.

He has managed to glide through life connecting on a superficial level with every single type of clique in school, while eating his lunch far from the madding crowd in a teacher’s office and making satirical movies that no one ever sees with another student, Earl (Earl’s the only friend Greg has, but Greg gets around that bit of kerfuffle by calling him his colleague).

Things get complicated though, when his mother starts making him hang out with Rachel, a friend’s daughter, a classmate of Greg’s, who has cancer (which starts out with one of the funnier bits in the movie; when he is forced to say why he is there, he blurts out, because my mother made me—it makes his visit worse, though at the same time better, because Rachel desperately needs the honesty).

And through his interaction with the dying girl, Greg starts to reevaluate his life.

Now the issue for me, and why the film doesn’t quite work as well as I would have liked it to, is that I was never sure why he is this guy who doesn’t want to make friends. The way most people talk about him, they describe him as someone who has low self esteem, doesn’t like himself and doesn’t think he’s worthy of having anyone of the friendly persuasion type in his life.

Which is fine as far as it goes. But for me, this character that everyone describes? He doesn’t remotely resemble the character on the screen. In fact, if he wasn’t described this way, I would have no idea that that’s what was going on.

He’s likeable and kind of interesting, true, but still, in many ways, Greg’s journey felt a bit forced, not to really grow organically from his character as much as I would have liked it to.

Which sort of threw things off for me a bit.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did like the movie. But in the end, I did feel it fell just that bit short.

Until the climax, that is. Because it has one hell of a finale, let me tell you.

Greg, who has promised to make a film for Rachel and who then proceeds to get artistically blocked, finally comes to terms with himself and makes that film. And what little we see of it (I wish we had seen more)—it’s a beautiful and powerful bit of avant garde cinema. And the look on Rachel’s face as she watches it is transcendent.

And for that period of time, the movie becomes transcendent as well.

With Thomas Mann as Greg; RJ Cyler as Earl; and Olivia Cooke as Rachel. All give solid, empathetic performances.

Also with Nick Offerman providing another one of his dads everyone would like to have no matter how weird they are performances as Greg’s father. And Molly Shannon quite touching as a mother who is having a hard time holding it together as she watches her daughter dying.

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