[This is a re-post of my Me and Earl and the Dying Girl review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today, expanding to more theaters over the next few weeks.]
If you’ve longed for a film that mixes the sensibilities of young romance seen in The Fault in Our Stars or (500) Days of Summer with the cinephilic verve of the Criterion faithful, the tender, irresistible Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for you. But seriously, this is a movie that is incredibly impactful despite the fact that, on paper, it simply shouldn’t work. It has one of those premises that sounds silly saying out loud—a lonely high school senior befriends another student who’s been diagnosed with cancer in an effort to raise her spirits—but thanks to grounded, spectacular performances, assured direction, and an oftentimes hilarious script, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl delivers with laughs and tears aplenty.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews (who also penned the screenplay), the film revolves around Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who keeps to himself not because he’s disliked, but because he’s trying to “survive” school without making any enemies. His self-professed goal is be “a citizen of every nation” (referring to the “nations” of cliques at the school), and to do so means he doesn’t ruffle any feathers by making close friends. He’s affable, awkward but in a disarming way, and dryly humorous. Oh, and he adores cinema. This isn’t some stereotypical “movie fan” character who hangs Scarface and Pulp Fiction posters in his room and calls it a day—Greg is infatuated with foreign films, avant garde, and classic cinema (basically everything in the Criterion Collection). When we first meet him, he’s casually taking in an older Werner Herzog movie during lunch, and a Criterion poster of The 400 Blows hangs above his bed.
Greg actually has two friends in his life, Earl and his teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), though he doesn’t see them that way. He’s known Earl since they were both in kindergarten, but he refers to him as his “co-worker.” Earl shares Greg’s affection for foreign cinema, and the two have made a hobby out of creating their own remakes of various classics with pun-tacular titles. Some of the funniest moments of the film arrive when we see brief scenes from My Dinner with Andre the Giant, A Sockwork Orange, The Seven Seals, and many more which I wouldn’t dare spoil.
Early in the film, Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) informs him that a classmate, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Despite protests from Greg who says they’re just acquaintances, his mom insists that he call her up and see if she wants to do something, in an effort to make her feel better. Greg relents, and while his first encounter with Rachel is somewhat stilted, the tension is broken by his uniquely dry sense of humor and overall goofiness.
Greg, as the narrator, informs the audience from the outset that this is not a “touching romantic story” where the two characters draw closer and closer before culminating in a kiss. This sets Me and Earl and the Dying Girl apart as a story of friendship, not one of romantic love.
Mann is wonderfully grounded and effortlessly charming as the film’s protagonist. While some actors may have been inclined to play the part as the “Goofy-But-Loveable Guy” or “Adorably Awkward Teen”, Mann instead opts to play Greg as a bit of an oddball, but not in any kind of clichéd way. He feels genuine, and the character’s selfishness (ie. feeling like he’s doing Rachel a favor rather than just being a nice person) shines through in an organic way, not as a contrivance.
Since Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is very much a first-person story focusing mainly on Greg, audiences aren’t given too much insight into the supporting characters around him, but the swell performances vividly bring these people to life. Cooke is sweet and complex as the titular girl, turning in an honest performance as a young woman who isn’t entirely sure how she feels about the fact that she may or may not be dying. And Nick Offerman is unsurprisingly excellent as Greg’s strange-but-charming father, who has a penchant for preparing rare and unique meals.
But the true standout in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s ensemble is RJ Cyler, who makes his feature debut as Earl. The guy is a natural; the character is incredibly funny without feeling jokey, but also layered. Earl clearly has emotions and deep thoughts of his own, but they aren’t necessarily worn on his sleeve. And again, since the entire film is told from Greg’s perspective, we’re seeing these characters through his eyes, but Cyler does wonders with the material he’s given to flesh out the character in three dimensions.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction is refreshingly striking. While the American Horror Story regular gets a little too carried away with flourishes in the opening minutes of the film, the camera thankfully calms down as the relationship between Greg and Rachel becomes more comfortable. There are a couple of long takes in the film that are impressive not in their showiness, but in how they allow the performances to shine—one incredibly emotional scene in particular involving Mann and Cooke is all the more impactful given that it’s framed as one single shot. And mixed into the film are some fantastic claymation sequences that bring to life some of Greg’s more creative inner thoughts in hilarious fashion. It’s little touches like these that bring out the colors of the film and accentuate what’s already there, but the movie’s heart lies in Mann’s moving arc as Greg.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl really shouldn’t work this well. The premise is somewhat saccharine and the sensibilities a bit twee, but it all culminates nicely through Gomez-Rejon’s lens. The film is, simply, irresistible. It’s irresistibly charming when it’s being cute and funny, and it’s irresistibly moving when it gets dramatic and emotional. And boy does it get emotional. While there are certain aspects or characters that could’ve used a bit more fleshing out, the emotional impact of the film’s conclusion is so powerful, so moving that it’s easy to wave those away and just take it all in. Stock up on tissues, you’re gonna need them.