Back to IndieWire

Growing Up, Staying Young: Animation As A Tool, From ‘Me and Earl’ to ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

Growing Up, Staying Young: Animation As A Tool, From 'Me and Earl' to 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Unlocks the Secrets of Adolescence

The pre-punk,
post-counterculture context of a mid-70s San Francisco has little in common
with a modern-day Pittsburgh when it comes to growing up in each time and
place. In fact, they couldn’t be much more different.

The
stories of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” may seem, despite their fitting into the same genre as coming-of-age tales,
entirely different. The former is about a compulsively anonymous high school
senior, Greg (Thomas Mann), reluctantly becoming friends with a
leukemia-diagnosed classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke). The latter is about a
fifteen-year-old San Francisco girl, Minnie (Bel Powley), experiencing a sexual
awakening after losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander
Skarsgård).

One finds a relationship that grew from a contrived, forced
friendship into an organic and comfortable one (“Me and Earl”); one finds an
almost star-crossed sexual relationship of excitement and novelty (“Diary”).
One is entirely platonic; one is inherently, well, not. But they do have quite a bit
in common: They both weave in elements of animation to their narrative, often a lost art in the
strange space of not-Cartoon-Network and also not-yet-Adult-Swim. What isn’t
entertaining to toddlers or isn’t in a comedy geared towards the
already-come-of-age (from “South Park” to “Archer” to “Bojack Horseman”) is
essentially an animation black hole. This void is filled in both these films,
where animation is woven into live action in both subtle and ornate fashion.

Animation in “Me and Earl” serves as a transition or flair by association (as with the
hot-girl-as-a-moose metaphor) and sometimes as a powerful tool for emotional
movement (as with the ultimate result of Greg’s film for Rachel). The animation
in “Me and Earl” doesn’t baby the audience — as would be all too easy a trap to
fall into — and is far from a mark of immaturity: Instead, it is a subtle
reminder of youth in a difficult, mature context.

There’s little room to deny
that cancer, or dealing with a friend’s cancer, can take a toll on your
adolescence, that it can make you grow up a little faster than you normally may. This
coming-of-age story is peppered with animated sequences that remind us that
Greg, and other teenagers who may be forced to face difficult situations, also
have remnants of their whimsical and creative childhoods. Animation, after all,
is by definition a blank slate for creative expression and interpretation, and
naturally appeals to the not-yet-jaded.

The animation, though, is
more than just emblematic of the ability to maintain elements of youthful
energy through growing up. It is a tool to both represent youth and a vehicle
to exit it; from the film that Greg and Earl end up putting together for Rachel,
to the very last sequence of “Me and Earl,” animation — or hand-drawn sequences
like it — functions as a profound, if possibly ironic and even overt, vehicle to
exit adolescence.

Take the final product of
Greg and Earl’s film for Rachel, in the hospital scene, as a representation of
this: First of all, naturally, this is the night of prom — a ritual so
universally recognized as a symbol of high school that it’s inextricably linked
to that strange limbo between child and adult. Second of all, we quite
literally watch Rachel undergo an incredibly painful and yet strangely tranquil
transition in this climactic scene from a living, breathing human to a
tragically doomed one. This transition forced Rachel from adolescence through
adulthood into death, and was done at least tangentially through Greg’s animation
that moved her so intensely — and, therefore, so violently — that she went into a
coma. Greg labors over the stop-motion animation that forms the final product of that film.

It ages him. And the final product ages Rachel as well. Animation, here, facilitated growing up — or, perhaps, forced her out of
childhood with a painful reminder of what is left behind.

One of the last shots of the
movie has Greg walking away from Rachel’s house, visually arranged so that he
appears to walk “up” a set of drawn steps through Rachel’s window. Though it
isn’t exactly animation per se, it is this mix of live action and something
created rather than performed that makes “Me and Earl” both an embodiment of
adolescence and a graduation from its tropes.

Marielle Heller’s “The Diary
of a Teenage Girl,” based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name,
does something surprisingly similar. The animation in “The Diary of a Teenage
Girl” is, of course, even more overt than in “Me and Earl” — after all, the film
is based on a graphic novel, and rests on the premise of its protagonist being
a budding artist and writer as she records the trials and tribulations of new
sexuality and teenagerhood through her tape recorder and on paper. And yet,
it’s no less unique in its use of animation than it is in its refreshingly
candid treatment of young female sexuality.

At age 15, Minnie Goetze is
experiencing a sexually-driven transition that shapes her coming-of-age story.
Her healthy relationship with her own budding sexuality and nuanced
understanding of it make the film both honest and realistic. But it isn’t just
her sexuality that Minnie is growing into: with her newfound interests, and the
changes associated with growing up in a turbulent time (both as a teenager and
in the context of a 1976 San Francisco straddling the end of hippiehood and the
beginning of punk), Minnie affirms her empowerment over and agency in her own
bildungsroman just by virtue of documenting it in a creative and intensely
personal way.

Part of this documentation, then, comes in the form of
imaginative animated sequences that often complement or are incorporated
visually into the live action of the film.

They do more than add a piece
of visual flora to the screen, though. These flairs of animation are both the
very personal reflections of Minnie’s inner monologue and the widely relatable
and accessible tropes of adolescence-turned-young-adulthood. They are creative
and detailed in their formation, and yet just whimsical enough to be emblematic
of the youthful curiosity and powerful exuberance that Minnie often embodies.

At the same time, they are — as with “Me and Earl” — vehicles of coming-of-age: They
maintain Minnie’s youth while helping her exit it, in that they help keep her
extreme creativity while also describing feelings that are part of growing up.
From lust to romance, to the intelligent evaluations of her feelings, Minnie’s
narration — and the animation that comes with her feelings and recordings — do
justice to both her connection to her imagination and her capacity to mature
with grace and power.

Minnie takes control of her
experiences and the often confusing emotions that come with them; she is
recording them and drawing them, and thereby ensuring agency in how they exist.
That maturity isn’t so much borne out of her sexual awakening as it is
associated in tandem with it — as she discovers a new part of herself, a part of
her with which she always felt connected (her artistic creativity) blossoms.
Both sexual awakening and candid confrontation with one’s
feelings are part of growing up, and Minnie is completely in control of each
part of this budding maturity.

Perhaps it’s a testament to
the universality of these coming-of-age stories that attests to their viability
as both inherently charming and, on a deeper level, startlingly relatable. Maybe
that’s why the animation in each one is so appealing: It shows that growing up
doesn’t necessarily mean losing elements of our youth, but instead means just applying
these elements in different ways — whether that be magically animating the world
around you, or creating something tragically beautiful for someone else. 

READ MORE: Sex and the Revolutionary Female Perspective in Marielle Heller’s ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,