I’ve been spending the week catching up on awards screeners for my inevitable best-of-the-year list and was struck and even a little ashamed (at first at least) by how much I liked Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I mention being a little embarrassed because the film itself shouldn’t be as good as it is. It is yet another coming-of-age teen story, with the extra tangent of cancer playing a major role in the plot. The film, as a whole, is everything you expect it to be, every bit the tearjerker these types of films are supposed to be, except it all works. It’s a transparent formula that, surprisingly, is amazingly effective because of a taut script, stylish, inventive direction, thoughtful acting and lots of Brian Eno on the soundtrack.
This, of course, is not a review of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s a review of Angelo Pizzo’s My All American, but I do have a point. Both films’ stories offer run-of-the-mill stories, yet but only My All American overcomes its plot with sheer verve. It’s a testament to the role of talent, which is where Pizzo’s film falls short. My All American is the story of one-time University of Texas football player Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken), deemed too small to make it in football, who — with grit and determination — manages to become a star. But there’s something too big even for him — cancer. Seeing as how Pizzo is also the man who wrote Hoosiers (1986) and Rudy (1993), and seeing as how My All American is every inch an uplifting sports movie, I don’t have to tell you where all of this is going.
As I’ve already mentioned, Pizzo’s pedigree and the type of movie he’s peddling don’t necessarily mean doom. With enough style, heart and intelligence, you could make a truly touching, truly meaningful uplifting sports movie. But this doesn’t happen. The direction is flat, the acting is so-so and the movie goes on and on and on, overstuffed with football footage. This is some tepid nonsense, which operates under the assumption that simply telling a sad story is enough to get an audience teary-eyed. And you know what? It’s not. The emotional response is never earned because nothing within the film exists to actually engage with the viewer. It’s a movie of the week, with basically the same budget, managing to fall into every hoary trap these sorts of based-on-a-true story, inspirational sports flicks thrive on. And the lack of creativity, inspiration and thoughtfulness (and probably some Brian Eno, let’s be honest) never allows My All American to be any more of than a collection of worn-out conceits. That the film never, truly honestly tries to be more than this is its greatest failure and biggest disappointment. Rated PG for thematic elements, language and brief partial nudity.