Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
High school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) has made being invisible into an art, taking pride in it as shown during the film’s opening minutes. Greg’s low-key lifestyle is disturbed, however, when Mom (Connie Britton) tells him about a friend (Molly Shannon) whose daughter, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has just been diagnosed with Stage IV leukemia. Mom requires Greg to hang out with Rachel in order to make her feel better—somehow—even though they are only acquaintances at school.
Based on the novel and screenplay by Jesse Andrews, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a rare film made for teenagers that is surprisingly proficient in balancing quirky elements, bona fide comedy, and painful truths about how it is like to be an outcast—whether it terms of personal choices or circumstances. The final product works because it is written with a sharp, sensitive, and observant eye as a teenage picture that just so happens to have a character with cancer in it. Less effective films that fall under this sub-genre are usually confused about what they want to be, do, and say.
Part of the magic is the casting. Mann is perfectly cast as a high school student with a lanky frame and is convinced that his face resembles a groundhog’s. He plays the character with seemingly effortless kindness and approachability that at one point I caught myself thinking I’d like to have Greg as a friend. There is something intriguing about the protagonist because even though he is not stereotypically smart—book-smart—we are convinced he has to be due to his high level of creativity.
Many laughs come in the form of the films Greg and his “co-worker”/friend named Earl (RJ Cyler). As a hobby, Greg and Earl give classic movies a new, silly title and shoot their own film to reflect the play on words. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is renamed “A Sockwork Orange” and so it stars actual sock puppets. What I found most refreshing in terms of their friendship is that Earl and Greg do not appear to be that close—at least on the surface. There are instances where one is justified in thinking that perhaps they are only together out of convenience—since both are outcasts who enjoy a variety of films, especially the foreign and classic variety.
It is expected that the most touching moments are the interactions between Greg and the dying girl. Notice I used the word “interactions” rather than “dialogue” because the exchange of words come across contrived at times. Most impressive are the silent moments: when they watch movies together, when one hides the pain she feels due to medication just so they can keep hanging out, when one tries so hard to not fight back as harshly because he is aware that the person in front of him is not at her best. However, when quirkiness in the dialogue are thrown out the window altogether, Greg and Rachel do share some genuine exchanges.
There is one scene that is perfectly shot, written, and executed. I was moved by its overall artistry and raw honesty. It involves a history teacher (Jon Bernthal) and his student having a conversation about our role in continuing to live even though a loved one is gone—that just because a person is no longer with us does not mean we necessarily stop learning about them. I was brought back to instances when I would ask my father about my late grandfather and then learning something new or unexpected about him. There are times when our similarities would surprise me but looking back to when I was younger and he was still around, it felt like we barely had anything in common at all.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is a successful comedy-drama because it has a knack for inserting small moments of honesty before plunging back to its unique rhythms that may or may not always work. It is inventive and heartfelt without leaning on cloying and overwrought sentimentality.