Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a richly satisfying picture from the mind of author Jesse Andrews, who also adapts his novel for the screen, putting his script into the hands of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. What results is a complete and total shake up of what the coming of age film can be.
We are introduced to our protagonist Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) the “Me” in the title, as well as his best friend Earl (EJ Cyler). They met at a young age and bond over a unique love for classic film. In their spare time Greg and Earl work together to make fun remakes of classic movies, where they make the title goofier and then make a new film to reflect the titular changes. This results in some hilarious pun-friendly titles such as “A Sockwork Orange” and “Senior Citizen Cane,” with goofy costumes and even some stop motion. It’s like a slightly more innocent Be Kind Rewind, but still every bit a dream for cinephiles alike.
Greg has spent his high school years successfully coasting by, avoiding any deep levels of connection with anyone outside of Earl and his teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal, better than ever). He has superficially friendly relationships with each of high schools social group, but nothing deeper than whats needed to fly under the radar. Greg is so afraid of making sincere personal connections that he calls Earl his co-worker, rather than best friend.
So when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with a girl recently diagnosed with cancer, Greg is very reluctant to do so. The titular “dying girl” is a sweet girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Their first interaction is understandably awkward and tense. But soon enough they form a good friendship, and Greg is no longer forced to go, he wants to be there for Rachel through her trying time. You start to wonder if this is going in the direction you think it is, but Greg stops you right in your tracks. As our narrator he tells us that this isn’t one of those movies where the boy and girl fall hopelessly in love where suddenly everything is magically fine.
While this could have been an overwrought depressing tale, it finds a good balance between comedy and somberness thanks to the grounded direction of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Sure, it helps that it comes from a strong piece of work from Andrews, but it’s not an easy film to bring to life visually, but Gomez-Rejon handles it gracefully (with a touch of Wes Anderson). This is large in part due to great cinamatographer Chung-hoon Chung (who filmed the original Oldboy). All of this is brought home by the wonderful score from the master himself Brian Eno (with contributions from Nico Muhly).
Gomez-Rejon doesn’t treat his teenage characters as caricatures of what teens are “supposed to be,” as so many other films harmfully do. Quite simply, he treats them like real human beings and the effects are rich and rewarding. You feel a strong unbreakable connection to Rachel, Greg, and Earl, and you can feel the same level of love from Gomez-Rejon and Andrews. It actually feels relatable, and that’s where the power lies.
It all rests heavily on the shoulders of its young cast, who are tremendously up to the task. Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke deliver strong performances that bring their unique friendship to life in all the ways that it needed. It’s utterly surprising to learn that this is only RJ Cyler’s second acting gig, as he holds his own, and then some, as Earl. Then there’s the veterans. Molly Shannon is quirky and hilarious as Rachel’s mom Denise, while Connie Britton and Nick Offerman make for a great team as Greg’s parents. Although his Mr. McCarthy is a quirky teacher, Jon Bernthal’s performance is pleasantly understated, a departure from the more hectic characters he normally plays.
Leaving Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, you’re hit with a wave of emotions, not helped by the pitch perfect placement and use of Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship.” The difference between this film and so many other tear-inducing teen dramas, is the end results actually feels earned. Just like Greg, we are eased into the world of these characters, and soon grow to love them, forming what feels like a real human connection with them. It’s special film that will linger with you long after the credits roll.
Like the movies that Greg and Earl make, it’s true power will show itself over time, touching you in more ways than you ever imagined.