Throughout Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the sleeper hit film based on the 2012 novel by Jesse Andrews, Greg (played by Thomas Mann) keeps reminding us how ugly he thinks he looks. He calls himself a groundhog and tells us he’s nothing special over and over, mostly in passing, and only one person ever thinks to ask him why he feels that way. It reminded me of that scene in Mean Girls when the girls sit around naming the parts of their own bodies that they hate. Watching Earl, I was struck by the strangeness of seeing a teenage boy onscreen who wasn’t sure of himself, who possibly didn’t like himself that much.
In a cultural moment when people are panicking about boys, their relationship to violence, and whether they're falling behind girls in school and life, Earl is one of several recent films that are doing something that feels cutting edge: They’re exploring boys’ interior lives. At least onscreen, we're starting to become more tolerant of varying, broader ideas of masculinity.
Sensitive and nerdy boys have long existed in film—they’ve just often been the butts of the joke, the foils to the often-bullying jock (think of Biff and Marty in Back to the Future). Characters from Eugene in Grease to Fogell in Superbad heighten the hilarity by being dutifully smart and criminally unfuckable, sex (and their inability to get any) fueling their self-loathing and ruining their lives.
But in Earl, Greg is different. His thoughts about sex only serve to underscore his borderline outcast status; he thinks about pretty, popular Madison, but is also fully aware that her beauty makes her inaccessible. Rather than focus on a horned-up teen unable to get any action like its 80s predecessors, Earl as a teen film shifts its focus to the importance of non-romantic relationships in boys' lives.
Greg reminded me of Sam from Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s charming 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks, which provided a visual diary for the commonality of teenage trauma and, specifically, how that plays out for boys; there’s a touching but hilarious scene where Sam (played by John Francis Daley) confesses to his parents that he’s afraid of being teased about his tiny body in the school locker room, and a heartbreaking episode that walks us through latchkey kid Bill Haverchuck’s (played by Martin Starr) lonely afternoon.
Those rich representations of vulnerability in boys have largely been missing from the big screen until the last few years. In Earl, Greg’s nerdiness is mostly on full display in the artistic but silly movies he makes with his ‘co-worker’ Earl (played by RJ Cyler) and the fact that he’s not sure about what to do with his life. But Greg is able to successfully drift through the pressures of high school socialization and avoid being the typically nerdy joke by not standing out too much, and cultivating a low-level friendship with every possible social group.
If he’s learned anything about nerds from the 1980s film prototype, it’s how to blend in to avoid ridicule. The drama of the movie is mostly about how Greg handles the stress of being forced outside of the very small world he’s created, and how new relationships push him to his emotional limit.
The emotional introversion of Earl is a distant cousin to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the 1999 book turned into a 2012 film. Perk’s Charlie (played by Logan Lerman) shyly engages with life through a group of new friends, but is dealing with some dark emotional issues under the surface.
Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood deals more with the trauma of family as Mason and his sister Sam shuttle between alcoholic stepfathers and a father who struggles to grow up right alongside them. Everything seems to antagonize Mason, from teachers to friends to the Rubik’s Cube way his family works. Quiet and artistic, Mason constantly struggles to fit in, and the pressing discomfort of the film is that it feels like we’re watching what happens when a kid slips through the cracks. Like Charlie, Mason doesn't fall into the traditional notion of masculinity and internalizes that knowledge by becoming smaller, quieter. In the end, there’s relief when Mason develops a good relationship with his dad and, despite his mother’s small breakdown in the face of his leaving, immediately finds friends and a comfort zone at school.
So far, this focus on sensitive boys has been pretty white; but in Dope, the 2015 summer hit about a group of misfit friends trying to figure out what to do with the huge amount of Molly they’ve just been saddled with, main character Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore) and friends know that they’re misfits. The wacky hijinks of these pop-punk playing, 90s-obsessed black kids in a tough, drug-ridden, South Central neighborhood are offset by the daily presence of violence. People get murdered, graduating high school and going to college isn’t a guarantee, and it’s not even safe for Malcolm to ride his bike home on the same route every day. There are crucial moments in the film where Malcolm walks you through his thoughts, but the movie primarily explores his interior life by having him talk through the pressures of his day-to-day existence.
Like 1991 hit Boyz n the Hood, Dope begs you to look beyond geography to embrace the individual ways boys try to become men in a neighborhood that only gives them one path to masculinity while simultaneously stressing the importance of how that geography shapes us. Boyz writer and director John Singleton embodies this idea fully, having written the film from his own perspective as a kid raised in South Central L.A. Malcolm is plagued by thoughts of his future in the same manner of Earl’s Greg, but he has the added bonus of not being sure he’ll live to find out the answer.
Adults keep trying to pin down the teen experience in film and no one gets it exactly right, but for me, Earl comes close. The characters felt familiar and realistic. Most of us can’t run away from our teen selves fast enough; in our memory, we’re left to pick and choose what we think defined us the most, and zoom in on those aspects as a way to explain how we’ve become who we are.
Seeing male fragility and insecurity on screen doesn’t necessarily solve anything about the difficulty of being a teenager, but it makes me feel hopeful that we’ll eventually get to a more interesting place as adults.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.