MOVIE REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl



By tackling the subject of cancer and doing so in the guise of a quirky high school comedy, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" stands out as proof that a movie can be earnest and humorous at the same time.  It can be understated in one moment and then completely outgoing the next.  It is a film that can feel facetious and yet still be profound.  It takes the modern high school setting that is deliberately riddled with innate tropes, stereotypes, and cliches and masterfully steers around every single one of them to offer you something smart, touching, and, most of all, original.  That is no small feat and something to stand up and celebrate.

Its first audience did exactly that.  "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" came out of this year's Sundance Film Festival in January with a standing ovation and walked away as the big double winner of the two top dramatic awards of the festival, the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.  The only films prior to this one to pull off that complete sweep in the last 15 years are "Precious," "Fruitvale Station," and "Whiplash," this website's top film of 2014.  This film is good enough to be in that company.  "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the second feature effort from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a TV director for "Glee" and "American Horror Story" and a former second unit director on "Argo," and written by author Jesse Andrews adapting his own award-winning young adult fiction novel of the same name.

Thomas Mann ("Project X," "Welcome to Me," and the upcoming "The Stanford Prison Experiment") stars as Greg Gaines, a non-conformist and non-follower looking to survive his senior year at an urban Pittsburgh high school.  He fancies himself as invisible by being cordial to all of the "Mean Girls"-esque cliques and demographics at his school while intentionally not favoring or following any of them.  Greg doesn't like himself.  He knows he's a misunderstood and directionless teen and relies on his insular self-interests to eek out an enjoyment of existence.  

As the son of a groovy and free-spirited sociology professor (Nick Offerman), Greg's creative outlet is making parody short films of Criterion classics and esteemed foreign films.  His personal favorite auteur is Werner Herzog, so that should say something.  His right hand man for these films is Earl (Ronald Cyler II, making his feature film debut), a black kid from down the street in a rougher part of town.  Earl who avoids the "ghetto" label by floating behind-the-scenes with Greg and following the same obscure social culture.  Greg is terrified of friendship and selfishly considers Earl a "business partner" more than a friend.  The two spend their lunch periods hanging out with the resident tattooed hard-ass social studies teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), watching more foreign films and digesting prophetic educational mantras like "respect the research."

The catalyst for some maturing and growing up comes in the form of their classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke of "Ouija," "The Signal," and TV's "Bates Motel"), who is newly diagnosed with leukemia.  Greg's mom (Connie Britton) and Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon) are good friends, so Mrs. Gaines forces Greg to make an effort to hang out with Rachel and make a friend.  Greg loathes this idea tremendously, but can't get out of it.  Rachel sees through the fake pity but takes Greg's attention on anyway.  Their "meet awkward" is the complete opposite of your cinematic device of a "meet cute."  Mann narrates this "doomed friendship" as Greg and the film blossoms with misadventures from there.

Getting back to that balance of earnest and humorous, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" lays out quite a minefield before its audience.  The jocular can match the graveness.  On one hand, you have Greg's flippant frankness within his observations of the world and his and Rachel's time together.  Some of it is blunt and impersonal and some is self-deprecating and disarming before long.  On the other side, you have Rachel's degrading health matched by a gameness and strength to take on every challenge and not be a victim.  She exudes a visible courage and personal drive, and she can do a little of her own disarming with her approachable and welcoming smile that reveals the weakness underneath.  

Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke are staggeringly good within these complex performances as Greg and Rachel.  Neither want or are interested in romance.  Neither know what to do with friendship, though you are confident they will find just that.  This isn't a simple "will they or won't they."  They are a welcome atypical on-screen pair that you will still find yourself rooting for in the traditional romantic sense.  However, their behaviors and portrayals dodge that expected trope in a way where you completely get and understand if they never become a couple.  To just make these two fall head-over-heels would be too easy.  Not even their basic friendship is automatic.  So, the film's trajectory dodges and avoids that tendency and makes itself (and us) earn it.

Their uncommon relationship is an example of the smartness and wit of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."  It succeeds in never settling for the easy narrative path.  It seeks the unconventional over the normal because life doesn't ever play fair or normal.  It orchestrates laughs where you're supposed to have tears and vice versa.  Even with the tables turned like that, your heart can't help but swell and be impressed by this film with every smile and punch in the gut.  This is still a coming-of-age story.  It's just not one that sorts into the usual expectations and contains minimal, if any, cheese.

On the surface, this film and its characters are probably going to come across as obscure for obscurity's sake, much like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" from three years ago.  Some won't see the purpose of it all because it doesn't fit into a set cookie-cutter comparison to something familiar or, once again, romanticized.  People will see the "cancer" and "young adult" labels and expect the pity-filled likes of "Love Story," "A Walk to Remember," "My Sister's Keeper," or "The Fault in Our Stars."  Even the outstanding similar smartness and frankness of "50/50" from 2011 can't compare to "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."  That film still aims happier and more traditional that this one.  Those folks that will want those commercial film experiences out of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" will be missing the point.  That nonconformity is its strength, not its flaw.  That's what makes this whole endeavor something truly superb.  You're looking at what is sure to go down as one of the best films of 2015.

LESSON #1: HAVE A FULFILLING CREATIVE OUTLET-- One completely cool and inspiring aspect of our three titular characters is that each possess a really strong creative side to their personalities.  They are trailblazers and not followers.  All three of them have a means and a medium where they are artistic and creative that gains them personal solace.  Greg and Earl have their films and Rachel's outlet is a late-revealed secret.  Best yet, all three of them carry on their creative outlets for themselves and not for an audience.  That's a refreshing and introspective thing compared to the Millennial age they come from obsessed with documenting, broadcasting, and blasting their every move and thought via social media and public platforms.  They are three "I don't care's" coming out of the "look at me" generation and they are doing more than just some hobby.  Kind of like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" again, one hopes that more teens see a film of this sort over another piece of teen-marketed trash.

LESSON #2: ONE STEP TO FINDING MATURITY IS CARING ABOUT SOMEONE OTHER THAN YOURSELF-- Both Greg and Rachel start forced into this unwanted friendship.  They won't admit it, but they both kind of need each other and welcome the new voice.  It takes time, but, sure enough, friendship is just what they find out of their shared time.  For Greg in particular, this is a colossal change.  He has so little positive opinion of himself that friendship is even more beneath his emotional threshold at the beginning of the film.  In gaining a true kindred spirit, he learns the letter of this lesson because, in Rachel and in a non-romantic way, he gets over his world being only about him and his self-perceived plight.  Greg gains the maturity of moving past youthful self-love and finds himself caring for someone else.

LESSON #3: ANOTHER STEP TO FINDING MATURITY IS ACCEPTING SOMEONE ELSE TO CARE ABOUT YOU TOO-- Learning to care about someone else other than yourself is one step and this is the next one for that coming-of-age maturity.  Simply put, does that person care about you in return?  If they do, can you accept that, because you should.  If you finally grow a heart and care about someone, friend or otherwise, you have to let them care for you too.  It can't be one-sided.  You have to let go of that additional layer of selfishness.  Greg does everything he can to shuck the friendship-level labels and responsibilities when it comes to both Earl and Rachel.  He denies their efforts of caring towards him and never fully lets them in.  If and when he finally does get over that distance, then Greg gains even more maturity.