This Sundance winner casts off the shackles of the “young adult weepie” genre with a deep love of cinema and charm for miles.
This is the story of my senior year of high school, which destroyed my life…
All you need to know is right there in the title. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a brashly self-aware indie, the kind that makes some people break out in hives. If I were to, for example, utter the name “Juno,” and you immediately pitched yourself out of your window, maybe this one’s not for you, either.
But that would be unfortunate, because for all of its tics Me and Earl has a sweet core. Like its self-deprecating lead, Greg, it doesn’t expect much of itself, or of you. It just wants to make you laugh a few times, and then hopefully make you cry. It’s The Fault In Our Stars for the cool kids. Or art school kids. Sometimes I get those confused.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, Project X) is a lot like how I was in high school, floating from social group to social group, liked by everyone, close with no one. It’s an existence that has taken years to cultivate, and he’s planning to skate through his senior year and into the nothingness that awaits him after. The only thing he really has going for him are 42 (and counting) terrible short films made with his “co-worker,” Earl (RJ Cyler), homages to foreign and art house classics with cheeky names like Senior Citizen Kane or The 400 Bros or A Sockwork Orange (which — surprise — replaces all the characters with socks). Anything involving Greg and Earl’s projects were my favorite parts of the film. At one point Greg does an impression of Werner Herzog, and Mann gets the inflections just right, and I laughed hard. I think I was the only one.
The “Dying Girl” of the equation is Rachel, played by young English actress Olivia Cooke. Before this her only credits were for mediocre sci-fi and horror films, but you wouldn’t know it here. She has a warm presence, and avoids both the “ethereal maturity” and “manic pixie” pitfalls of the genre with her enormous eyes and actorly bravery. Rachel seems refreshingly normal, not a construct. When Greg’s mom (Connie Britton!) finds out Rachel has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Leukemia, she essentially forces Greg to go hang out with her, something neither Greg nor Rachel are itching for. But Greg’s endearing weirdness eventually breaks the ice, and the two embark on their “doomed” (as Greg describes it) friendship.
Me and Earl‘s script, written by Jesse Andrews (which was based on his own novel), was on Hollywood’s “Black List” in 2012, a yearly tradition where studios name the best unproduced scripts on the market. It’s easy to see why; it goes out of its way to avoid the cliches of its brethren, frequently calling them out directly. “If this were your typical young adult romance,” Greg tells us more than once, things would play out much differently than they do here. But Greg is also an unreliable narrator, and hates himself, and doesn’t fully understand what he’s getting himself into.
It’s directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who prior to helming episodes of American Horror Story and Red Band Society, worked in the trenches alongside Martin Scorsese as a camera assistant. He’s 42, but this film has an almost relentlessly youthful energy, and plays as an homage to not just Scorsese, but to all the filmmakers that have influenced him. (Maybe too many.) The camera almost never stops moving, whip-panning and pushing in and pulling out, which may exhaust some viewers, but I thought it accurately captured the disorientation of the high school experience. It also makes those rare moments of stillness stand out, like an uncomfortably long scene later where the camera is locked down and never cuts, making you feel like a voyeur for perhaps the film’s most emotional moment.
The cast, especially the leads, is uniformly excellent. Mann has an appealingly neurotic ganglyness, and Greg is funniest when he’s bad at being funny. (The film as a whole has more charm than jokes, but that’s not a bad thing.) Cooke has the hardest job, and she’s tremendous, retaining Rachel’s dignity and never letting the film treat her as an object or symbol. Some of the actors play their parts broadly, like Jon Bernthal as a muscular, tatted history teacher, and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s wino mother. And Nick Offerman is here too, because why wouldn’t he be?
The affectations start to pile up: the wink-nudge narration, the cheeky title cards (“The Part Where I Meet a Dying Girl”), the forays into stop-motion, the precociousness of its lead character and his family. Is it all too much? Maybe. The film also isn’t sure how it feels about Earl, who gets second billing in the title but fourth or fifth in practice: he serves as Greg’s makeshift conscience, but is the script making fun of his “tough” upbringing, or just using it as a crutch because there’s nothing else to him? Is the ending disingenuous, or bold? Just what is the film trying to say?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is twee, but not obnoxiously so. It jerks your tears, but it isn’t maudlin. It’s not predictable, and it’s not easy. This Spring it pulled off the Sundance double, winning both the Audience and Jury prizes. Last year, Whiplash did that, but Whiplash is a near-perfect film and this one only suffers by the comparison, so forget that. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.
See? It’s easy to be Greg. But the reward comes when Greg tries to be more than “Greg.” He attempts to make a film for Rachel that sums up his confusing feelings. Gomez-Rejon, similarly, made Me and Earl to honor his father. In both cases, the results are a little shaggy, but you can see the love that went into them. If you need a break from a summer of dinosaurs and explosions, Greg would recommend you watch any film but his. I disagree.