Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl photo starrating-4stars.jpgGreg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high schooler in his senior year. Despite being on good terms with virtually every social clique there is, he doesn’t deeply connect on a personal level with any of them. OK so there’s his “co-worker” Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler) with whom he remakes classic films into parodies, redubbing them with titles like “2:48 PM Cowboy”, “A Sockwork Orange”, “Eyes Wide Butt”, “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” and “The 400 Bros”. I savor the day the DVD is released and I’ll be able to pause the frame to see every pun-worthy title that sits on that shelf. Together the duo eat lunch in the office of their hip, heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal).

Yes the narrative is twee, almost stridently so. There’s the coming-of-age plot coupled with the sardonic male lead – actually everybody here is pretty cynical. There’s Greg’s voiceover – a style device which lets you know the inner monologue of this artistic fellow. How arty? Well, he goes beyond watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and onto Burden of Dreams, the 1982 documentary about the making of that picture. Then there’s the manic pixie dream girl. The one he didn’t want to pursue but did so out of duty. She just so happens to suffer from a fatal disease. Obviously given the title, right? The tragically doomed teen invites recent comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars but this has a quirkiness as filtered through the eyes Wes Anderson.  Film aesthete Greg Gaines is cut from the same angst-ridden cloth as Max Fischer in Rushmore. Rejecting those allusions to other works, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still stands on its own, an ode to a generation, perhaps even becoming a classic in its own right over time.

The plot concerns a local girl named Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. When Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) discovers that she is a classmate of Greg’s, she forces her son to make a date to go hang out with Rachel for a day. After some prodding, he agrees. This is the beginning of what he calls his “doomed friendship.” There’s no faster shortcut to give a narrative weight than death. The construct threatens shameless sentimentality but the way the drama unfolds, it never succumbs to that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon keeps the conversations intimate and involving. He’s directing from an honest script by Jesse Andrews which is based on Andrews’ own 2012 novel of the same name. The story slowly works its way into your heart to become a delightful charmer. Greg and Rachel are essentially forced to be together, neither particularly wanting the other’s company. It’s their accidental relationship that forms the heart of the picture.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes with a notable pedigree. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and took top dramatic honors with the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. It’s easy to see why. The chronicle is a sincere slice of adolescent life. Alright so it’s a bit precious too. The account integrates a triad of performances that alternates between cutesy and clever. But the story rises above indie movie clichés to give the viewer a genuinely heartfelt portrait. I embraced this trio. The friendship between Greg, Earl and Rachel isn’t as calculated as it seems on paper. Greg is a wistful lad while Earl is much more pragmatic. Their seemingly incongruous personalities are united by their enthusiasm for cinema. Occasionally their obsessions threaten to disrupt credibility with their “adorable” idiosyncrasies. Yet the saga ultimately hews closer to real life. Their quirks serve the tale, enriching its themes with visual flair rather than derailing it. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejona got his start as a second unit director on films like Babel, Julie & Julia, and Argo. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is only his second feature but his experience shows a talented director with a facility for different genres. He clearly has something to say and now I am listening.


11 Responses to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

  1. Greg Skala Says:

    Did reviewing this movie bring “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” to your mind, Mark? Reading your review did that for me.


    • It didn’t but I catch your drift. Perhaps I should’ve chosen another word for “redubbing”. In this case I meant, to give another name or title to. Their movies are newly shot footage which copies the original within a humorous context.

      I actually have never seen Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? However I am well aware of its existence and the story behind it so your observation is very keen.


  2. Indeed. I really really dug this, as aggressively quirky as it does become. I think I like how it isn’t afraid to make its main characters unlikable even in their most vulnerable moments. There were a few things that Greg said to Rachel that I just couldn’t believe! All the more power to this film and its commitment to portraying life as we experience it.

    I think I need to see Rushmore, too. That, I think, is the only Anderson movie I have yet to see.


  3. Amazing review, looks like something I’d watch.


  4. I knew I was gonna like this movie. The previews drew me in and didn’t disappoint. I liked that his mom forced him to visit the dying girl. This could have been cliché, but wasn’t. Very quirky and fun. 4 stars


  5. I can’t say I’m rushing to see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl since many of my film critic friends in Boston have been heaping a lot of hate on it, but I certainly enjoyed reading your take to hear another side to this story. Based on your critique I’ve developed an understanding of why so many people are taken with the movie.


    • I can assure you, the haters are a distinct minority. In addition to taking top honors at Sundance, it won awards at film festivals all across the U.S. and beyond. It’s also got a 80% approval on RT and a 91% audience score. It would be hard to find a more beloved film this year.


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