Teenagers and their problems are low hanging fruit that directors and screenwriters have been picking for decades. Adolescents tend to feel things more deeply, or at least react more strongly, so placing teenagers as the protagonists in tragedies allows for increased melodrama without sacrificing believability. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film with plenty of teenagers, melodrama, and tragedy, but also humor, heart, and movie references. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and stars Thomas Mann (a.k.a “Me”), Ronald Cyler (“Earl”), and Olivia Cooke (“the Dying Girl”) alongside Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, and Jon Bernthal.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fits into the mold of such films as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars, pulling in the cultural knowledge of the former and the tear-jerking cancer narrative of the latter. The emotional crux of the film is the friendship (refreshingly not the romance) that springs up between a self-centered teenager, Greg (Mann), and a classmate diagnosed with Leukemia (Cooke), both of whom have no real desire for the relationship until it is well underway.
Greg and his “coworker” Earl have been best friends since kindergarten, despite some marked differences in personality: Greg’s upper-middleclass background contrasts with Earl’s lower-middleclass one, Greg flies below the radar while Earl could not care less about standing out, and Greg has a cripplingly low opinion of himself while Earl is always self-assured. Their bond is borne primarily out of of their similar sensibilities when it comes to the movies. They watch Herzog during their lunch breaks at school and seem to have a natural affinity for anything immortalized by the Criterion collection.
Moreover, the two spend their free time making parody versions of classic films. Their library includes such reimagined classics as A Sockwork Orange, 2:48 Cowboy, Senior Citizen Kane, and Mono Rash, all full of stop-motion animation, puppetry, and deadpan performances. We see glimpses of these films, which are terrible in a specific enough way that they loop back around to being brilliant. It’s the kind of joke that one would expect to be beaten into the ground, and it nearly does come to that, but the clips never stop being funny.
Despite his creativity and prowess when it comes to making short films, real emotional human interaction eludes Greg. Rachel, newly diagnosed with a terminal illness, only enters the picture when Greg’s mother (Britton) makes him spend time with her because it would be a nice thing to do. In her bedroom, they awkwardly sit. Greg starts talking, and follows increasingly absurd tangents that cause Rachel to smirk, then smile, and then finally laugh. This is just enough of a foundation to begin building what Greg christens in his narration their “doomed friendship.”
Greg is our protagonist, but also our unreliable narrator (thankfully a more constructive and less cloying than film narration tends to be). The film is framed by Greg telling the story of his year being friends with a “dying girl,” and thus it is influenced by Greg’s opinions and misconceptions. However, the use of narration as a rhetorical device does allow for some rather shameless emotional manipulation to make the film’s inevitable gut punch that much sadder. The narration also ensures that Greg is a primarily likable character, as seeing his actions without context would probably not paint a very flattering picture.
Thomas Mann is tasked with a difficult role. He must be at various points charming, annoying, downright cruel, and selfless. Mann is the film’s anchor, and without his performance the movie would have fallen apart. There are other major characters, but everything is seen through Greg’s eyes. Private conversations between his parents are overheard from upstairs, and interactions between Earl and Rachel are heard about secondhand. The rest of the cast, including Offerman, Britton, Shannon, and Bernthal, are all given chances to shine, and all deliver, but Greg is the film’s connective tissue.
Rachel, as played by Cooke, is the sort of girl many high school students would probably like to romance: smart, witty, and possessing the sort of big eyes that are so effective on screen. Cooke superbly portrays the character’s diminishing sense of self as she becomes sicker and weaker over the course of the movie. Cooke, already in her twenties, passes comfortably as a seventeen year old, and once her head is shaved looks even younger, bordering on childlike. Rachel, though bordering on adulthood in the film, is unfortunately destined to be forever a child, and her appearance enhances this effect.
Ronald Cyler, as Earl, at first appears to be playing a bit of a stereotype: the black friend playing sidekick to the white lead. As the movie gets rolling, however, it’s clear that Earl is hardly the second fiddle to Greg. Earl is the more confident of the two and the driving force behind much of the action. For example, his first meeting with Rachel doesn’t leave him tongue tied or uncomfortable like it does Greg. He is relaxed and capable of connecting with her, even if she is dying. Earl provides counterpoint to Greg, as he does not view Rachel’s responses to her illness and their overtures of friendship to be reflections on either him or Greg.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is yet another in the long line of teenaged melodramas, but it is fun and clever enough that it doesn’t matter if it recombines some overly familiar elements. Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke make for especially likable and capable leads, infusing the film with a strong emotional core and platonic relationship easy to care about. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is only on his second feature, but he has an eye for interesting shots, and this film bodes well for his future career. Movie buffs will probably get more out of it than most, and the film is an unapologetic tearjerker, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the rare tragedy willing to make its audience laugh right up until the end.