Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s incredibly Sundance-y Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a modern cancer comedy that falls somewhere between the hilarious yet raw 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011) and the insincere, bleary-eyed The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014).
Like the former, Me and Earl uses comedy as a way to look at our mortality in a fresh way, and at its high points, Gomez-Rejon successfully undulates between the hilarious triviality of everyday life and the earnest emotion and physical pain attached to any life-threatening disease. Like the latter, it’s a teen movie that uses that sub-genre’s tropes to heighten the sense of lingering tragedy, and at its worst this comes off as blatantly manipulative, shrewdly contrived to jerk tears instead of building emotion naturally, as 50/50 did so brilliantly. Overall, the care that went into the production of Me and Earl, as well as a trio of good leads and a cinephilic sensibility that is tailor-made for audiences like me, leads me to consider this a successful addition to the ever-expanding ‘quirky indie’ genre I often find myself despising.
Thomas Mann plays Greg, a generic white kid so generic and so white that he is unable to fit nicely into any of the cliques at school. Friendly with everyone but not truly a part of anything, his only close friend is Earl (R.J. Cyler) with whom he shares a common interest in cinema and makes dumb home-spun movie parodies as a result. At the behest of his mother, Greg is forced to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a social outcast with leukemia. What begins as awkward, forced teenage playdates grows into a more genuine friendship that leads Greg to try to create a surprise film for Rachel, with Earl’s help.
It’s a fairly uncomplicated plot that, as the title hints at, is more about Greg’s journey to become comfortable in his own skin than it is about Rachel’s disease. Locations are used sparingly, often shackled claustrophobically to Rachel’s bedroom. This results in a grounded story in a believably lived-in teenage space, smartly reflecting the actual experiences of home-bound adolescents. Compare this approach to The Fault In Our Stars‘ odd and excruciatingly inconsequential Amsterdam interlude, which came across as a cheap, fairytale distraction from the inevitable tragedy before it is predictably sprung back upon the audience. In Me and Earl, the cancer and the painful emotions it causes constantly loom, allowing for character tensions to build naturally and realistically instead of in fits and starts.
For Greg, movie-making is his Amsterdam, his attempt to escape from harsh reality, but not even this hobby remains untangled from the problems he faces for long. On one hand, the script’s endless stream of often-obscure film references feels like an intentional, even pandering appeal to critics and niche indie audiences. I mean, why do we really need all of these references if they don’t do anything to move the plot along? On the other hand, it totally worked on me. Any movie that references Werner Herzog gets points in my book (and this one does it several times!) Recognizing all the name-drops and goofy movie puns felt like a reward of sorts for the four years of film school I just went through. Still, this is likely going to be divisive element that can and will isolate mainstream audiences.
Maybe if Gomez-Rejon had backed off on the film references a bit, he could have put more emphasis on the Earl character, which is the weak link of the film. For being the only character who is actually named in the title, Earl is certainly sidelined and only used as a kind of device for Greg to open up through. In comparison to the two white teenagers, It’s rather uncomfortable to see the third supposedly main character become an only marginally-important token black kid with little personality of his own. Surely just calling it Me and the Dying Girl would have been a much easier sell (though obviously it was unlikely they’d change the name from that of the book this is adapted from). It’s a shame because, in the few scenes where R.J. Cyler actually gets to play Earl with real emotion, he knocks it out of the park with some of the most heartfelt line deliveries in the movie.
Mann and Cooke do pretty great work as well, coming across as real human kids. The talented adult supporting cast (such as Jon Bernthal, Molly Shannon and Nick Offerman), meanwhile, are nothing more than cutesy caricatures who, of course, can never fully understand what these teens are going through. It’s these characters that add maybe a little too much quirk for comfort, making everything feel like a Wes Anderson-esque (aka fake) wannabe. Luckily, as things come to their unavoidably emotional conclusion, the weaker characters fade into the background and let the kids do what they do best. After all, a cancer movie is only as good as how it makes you feel by the end, and in that regard Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a draining, memorable experience. Perhaps not quite as blind-siding as 50/50, but close enough.
I can’t avoid my bias towards a movie that is as openly obsessed with movies as I am. But even without the Herzog references, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is still an inventively-shot, well-acted, eminently charming movie that mostly (but not completely) manages to avoid quirky indie films’ tendencies towards inauthenticity to deliver something truly heartfelt, if not completely unified.
Score: 4 out of 5