If you ignore the positive reviews of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), generating among cinephiles and just read its plot, the immediate line of thought you would have is ‘just another teen cancer tear-jerker’ or a ‘narcissistic high-school movie’. The movie never circumvents the conventional scenes we think that are gonna be in such a ‘cancer flick’. There’s the perfectly calculated laid-back attitude and a typical understated characterizations of indie films. The eccentric animated sequences plus the characters’ movie fixation reminds us of Michael Gondry’s films, while that coy quirkiness and self-referential jokes makes us holler the name ‘Wes Anderson’. So, on terms of originality the film might not score a lot. But, still “Me and Earl and Dying Girl” offers an emotional pull that it is irresistible. As the narrative oscillates between enthusiasm and pathos, we get a feeling that there are more genuine moments in this contemporary American teenager movie than in a usual YA novel or flick.
The coming-of-age was actually based on a YA novel written by Jesse Andrews (who has also sensibly adapted his novel), which pulled off the ‘Grand Jury Award’ at Sundance Film Festival. The subject of teen angst hits a nerve, the same way Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of being Wallflower” did. The movie starts with an indistinct Pittsburgh high school senior named Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) explaining to us his unfailing formula for surviving in high school. He has dedicated his school life to learn the codes of in-groups and has tried to never associate with a single group. He alleges that the school cafeteria as “a disputed territory; It was Crimea, Kashmir and Gaza Strip all rolled into one”. It’s clear that Greg’s survival tactics has neither earned him any friends nor given him the ability to be trustworthy.
But, still Greg has one friend named Earl (RJ Cycler), with whom he hangs out in a self-indulgent history teacher’s office and at home. However, Greg likes the term ‘co-worker’ to describe rather than friend. As Earl explains in a latter scene, Greg has some serious trust &self-loathing issues that he hates to be friends with someone. They both are co-workers because the duo makes parodies/homages on classic art-house films, which they have started to watch from a very tender age, thanks to the influence of Greg’s well-meaning but aloof father (a tenured sociology professor, played by Nick Offerman). Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) is a little overly protective parent and often she likes to go through her son’s things. She also compels Greg to visit Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate recently diagnosed with cancer.
Greg calls Rachel and says some awkward things. She doesn’t want a pity visit. Later, Greg honestly says why he has visited to her house: “I’m actually here because my mom is making me”. But, we are informed early that this relationship isn’t going to take the usual romance route as “Day one of Doomed Friendship” title card pops-up. Despite being in a closed-in space, they do not warm up to each other. He makes some awkward jokes about death, masturbation and high-school cliques, while she calmly listens to his eccentricities. As expected a genuine friendship builds between the two, but it is more centered on Greg, who learns to not rejoice in solipsism.
Even though the movie starts with a highly stylistic and self-aware setting, the narrative trajectory is very predictable. Jesse Andrews expresses a lot about the grown-up characters through Greg’s point-of-view, but they are more or less works like a cog in the machine rather than a separate entity. But, since the protagonist here wavers between ‘over-the-top’ humility and narcissistic attitude, his point of view on others doesn’t totally come off as stereotype. For example, about Earl, Greg simply introduces as “His house is short walk from mine, but in a tougher neighborhood; his dad is in Texas and his mom is a depressed shut-in”. It is all Greg could say about a guy with whom he had hanged-out since kindergarten. Earl’s stereotypical introduction isn’t the script’s negative aspect; it just makes us to see how limited Greg’s world-view is, in spite of being a bibliophile and cinephile. As the narrative progresses, we learn Earl isn’t a stereotypical character. In fact he talks more easily to Rachel and makes her feel less like a cancer victim than Greg. He also conveys the most soulful message to Rachel than any of the high school students and family members. I also personally liked how Greg and Rachel’s relationship is portrayed in a way to makes us ponder on whether there is a romantic connection between them or not.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon seems to have a penchant for sunlit shots. His previous feature film “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” was a typical, dull slasher flick, but the one commendable aspect was Alfonso’s impeccable frames. My favorite shot composition is the scene before the third act, where Rachel and Greg have a verbal dispute was splendidly filmed in a way that exposes both the person’s vulnerabilities and inner conflicts (although Rachel and Greg aren’t seeing face to face). The chief delight of “Dying Girl” is the hilarious little shorts on classic world cinema, created by Earl and Greg (“Eyes Wide Butt”, “Pooping Tom”, “Senior Citizen Kane”, etc). The scene where Greg imitates Werner Herzog, while applying for the college was one of the film’s funniest moment.
Since the movie is totally concentrated on “Me” in the title, the protagonist’s self-centered antics might make you feel a little exhausted. The ending is kind of inevitable and Greg finally learning to appreciate other people’s depth and complexity is touched upon with a little melodrama or sentimentality. Nevertheless, a total absence of melodrama would have undone the movie experience for many who seek a simple YA tear-jerker. The performances are just more than perfect. Thomas Mann and RJ Cycler (his debut feature) transcend the contrivances of their characters. But, the best of the lot is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. She has a limited screen time than what we expect, but at no point she gives us a pity performance. Rachel is said to be Cooke’s first dramatic role (she has only been in sci-fi or horror movies) and she has pulled it off with the elegance of an established star.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (105 minutes) is a poignant tale of teenage friendship that renders how stupid it is to waste our life on self-absorption & self-loathing. Despite its last-act melodrama, you will feel that the tears shed are genuinely earned.