Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is actually a movie within a movie that’s also wrapped up in this giant, heartbreaking, beautiful ball we called life. It’s a Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner from the Sundance Film Festival and features engaging work from its ensemble.
But transcendent stories shouldn’t just ride on the back of accolades or intricately structured narratives. They should invade our conscience, shake up our souls, and even give us a good cry or chuckle amidst the sublime seduction. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl hits these notes with a deft, humorous, and ultimately heartrending flair, and there’s a valid reason for all its praise: Its aim is true.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior whose quippy comments and nonchalant attitude gives him a smattering of savoir faire, just enough to make him likable and invisible to his fellow students. Like his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), Greg doesn’t want to be bothered with the jocks, the class beauties (his crush is played by Katherine C. Hughes), or anyone who isn’t part of his inner circle. Greg and Earl’s antisocial behavior stretches even during lunch, as they avoid the teenaged fray and scarf down sandwiches at the offices of Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), a pho-loving, comfortable in his own skin history teacher.
Along with making hilariously bad (and funny) short films that spoof classic movies (“Don’t Look Now,” “Peeping Tom,” and “Breathless” are just a few of their selections), these Pittsburgh natives just want to graduate high school and trudge on to their next, seemingly uneventful chapter.
Skating through life as an invisible man is an impossible goal, as life has its way of changing the scenery. At his mother’s (Connie Britton) insistence, Greg visits Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow classmate who’s been diagnosed with cancer. What begins as an awkward conversation gradually morphs into a substantive friendship.
Rachel actually enjoys watching Greg and Earl’s short films, and when the pair decide to make a short film dedicated to her, it’s time to get serious. Unfortunately, Greg can’t cope with the inevitably tragic and challenging aspects of life, and making a movie about his dying friend is an insurmountable task.
As he continues to emotionally recede into the distance, Greg has a pivotal talk with Mr. McCarthy, who wisely reflects that “life can unfolding itself” just as long as one is paying attention. Although it’s one of the story’s most evocative moments, it’s a scene that’s powered by its refreshingly unadorned approach.
Instead of beating audiences over the heads with scenery chewing arias and syrupy dialogue, director Alfonso-Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who adapted the film from his own book) infuse the tale with a knowing reality. This isn’t your average coming-of-age tale, and to paraphrase Mr. McCarthy’s aforementioned quote, this is a story replete with continued discovery.
It’s plain to see that Gomez-Rejon, who started his career as a personal assistant to such talented directors as Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a huge film geek. More importantly, with his choice of revered visualist Chung-Hoon Chung (“Stoker,” “Old Boy”) as cinematographer and his effective collaboration with the actors, Gomez-Rejon proves he’s a highly skilled filmmaker. In short, Gomez-Rejon’s cinematic future is a bright one.
Olivia Cooke’s commitment to the role, which includes going bald, is obviously commendable. Her most memorable feat, however, is bringing dimension to a teenager who could have simply existed as a sentimental plot point to Greg’s journey. Instead, Cooke, as well as newcomer Cyler, bring an added resonance to the proceedings.
Thomas Mann has the story’s most complicated role. Bitter and destructively self-effacing, Greg must accept that, as life changes and evolves, he must become an active participant. Mann brings much needed complexity and unpredictability to Greg, whose actions are often far from inspiring or life affirming.
Though Me and Earl and The Dying Girl is a loving ode to classic (and must-see) films of yesteryear, the story doesn’t bathe in pure nostalgia. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.” I continue to picture Rachel, Greg, and Earl sitting on a corner, eating a popsicle, and just shooting the breeze. It’s a moment that doesn’t just live within the movie’s confines or even the day that scene took place. Whether unwitting or planned, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, writer Jesse Andrews and the project’s hands-on-deck actors were shooting for so much more.
My tears, laughter, and memories of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl continue long after its end credits, and it’s great to know that, with its overwhelmingly positive reception, I’m not alone in the dark.