Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
by Jordan Canahai
Like many avid moviegoers who’ve witnessed in the last decade or so to what I believe has (largely) been the decline of the once-great American independent film movement, I’ve become immediately suspicious in recent years of any happy-sad coming of age independent “dramedy” to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience award. On the surface, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, based on screenwriter Jesse Andrews novel of the same name, appears to be just that; oozing equal measures sentimentality and ironic self-awareness while possessing a title that refers to our vanilla white protagonist and narrator, his token black friend, and the girl whose terminal illness serves as the catalyst for his emotional growth. Along with all that baggage it must also belong to the dreaded “teenage cancer” subgenre, so imagine my surprise that I kind of actually dug this flick.
Perhaps part of it is personal, anyone who can recall their formative years as a teenage movie geek will likely see shades of themselves in main character Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an awkward, insecure high school loner and cinephile with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When not doing his best to remain anonymous to his peers that comprise the various high school cliques familiar to anyone whose seen a John Hughes movie, him and best friend Earl (RJ Clyer) spend their time watching classics of world cinema (Greg’s heroes include Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese so if nothing else the young man has impeccable taste) and making their own juvenile home movies inspired by their favorite titles (A Sockwork Orange, The 400 Bros, Pooping Tom, etc.) When his parents inform him that a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia, they urge Greg to reach out to her, and what begins as a couple awkward visits eventually grows into a complicated friendship, leading Greg and Earl to make a film for Rachel as his relationship with her leads him to grow as both an artist and a human being.
An important lesson of growing up is learning you’re not the center of the universe, one that comes most difficult for teenagers, being old enough to possess new insights and self-awareness but often lacking the empathy and understanding of mature adults. Indeed, I was initially hostile to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as everything about the film seemed to suggest its perspective was just as simple and simplistic as its self-centered and narcissistic young protagonist, Rachel’s misfortune and terminal illness existing merely as a plot device for the advancement of Greg’s own personal narrative; his journey to be a better filmmaker, a better person, to get into the college of his choice, and maybe even get the hot girl before the credits roll. However just because the film adopts Greg’s perspective (how else would a naïve, immature teenage boy whose understanding of life comes mostly from movies view his world if not through that narrow lens?) it does not necessarily mean the filmmakers share it. Indeed, the defining lesson Greg comes to learn from Rachel is how limited his perspective and world view truly is, that no matter how much one may think they know another soul, there is always more happening beneath the surface than can ever be truly perceived. It’s an ineluctable truth of life that’s both beautiful and humbling.
The cast of young performers is uniformly excellent, while the adult actors (in particular Molly Shannon as Rachel’s tragic, boozy single mother) are equally strong. First time director Gomez-Rejon’s storytelling bursts with infectious energy while David Tractenberg’s French New Wave-inspired editing rhythms effectively mimic the films that his subject loves. Although sometimes more cloying than clever, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is ultimately a smart and entertaining ode to friendship, growing up, and the movies.
Watch the trailer for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
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