For a movie with a high school senior battling crippling leukemia, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is hilarious. This movie has all the elements of an indie drama that, when handled incorrectly, make for a schmaltzy, sympathy-laden trip to teen emo world.
It’s as if director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who based his script on his own novel) set out to make a movie devoid of emotional manipulation. There are only a few short fleeting moments that seem like sympathy will win out, but Gomez-Rejon and Andrews have their characters toss them aside as if to say to an audience, “We aren’t into this and we know you aren’t either.”
The “Me” in the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), a self-inflicted social reject of sorts that believes the best way to get through life is to remain invisible yet simultaneously infiltrate all the social cliques that high school creates. His best friend (who he actually calls his co-worker) is “Earl” (RJ Cyler), whom Greg has known since kindergarten. Their “work” has consisted of making over 40 films based on various art films on location in their hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
Essentially, Greg and Earl are the Weird Al Yankovic of movies.
Greg’s world gets thrown out of whack when his hippie parents (a fantastic Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) insist he visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Rachel rounds out the characters in the title as she is “the Dying Girl”, having recently learned that she has stage IV leukemia.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” pulls no punches in revealing how selfish and socially bankrupt that Greg is as he only worries about how befriending someone who is most likely going to die will affect him. Fortunately, Rachel is fairly sick and tired of people telling her “it’s going to be okay” and she finds Greg’s backwards outlook somewhat refreshing.
In fact, for the majority of the time they spend together, her diagnosis is rarely discussed. They spend most of the time getting to know each other, as Greg (with the help of the much more well adjusted Earl) opens up his bizarre world to Rachel and she forces Greg to actually learn things about the people with whom he’s spent the last four years of his life.
Not only does this movie avoid romantic flourish, it mocks it. Just when you think Greg and Rachel will share a moment, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews cleverly skewer it. It not only makes sense for their characters, it seems like a wink-wink parody of other awful high school love stories.
There are several smaller parts for adults, with the aforementioned Offerman as an eccentric sociology professor who is permanently clothed in Indian tunics. Molly Shannon is perfectly weird as the drunken, overwhelmed mom of a sick daughter and Jon Bernthal plays a tattooed, intense high school teacher that Greg and Earl hang out with in their free time.
The key to all of this are the three main characters. RJ Cyler is a man of few words, but those words are either hilarious or poignant. He has a monologue towards the end of the movie that is worth the ticket price alone.
Thomas Mann, who is in every single scene, is more than capable of carrying this movie. He’s extremely funny and once the time comes for the emotions to hit (which they do, like a ton of bricks), Mann excels. He even manages to make nonstop self deprecation fully entertaining.
If not for the subtle performance of Oliva Cooke, this movie tanks. She’s charming and relentlessly sweet, never soliciting pity in a highly sympathetic role. The on screen chemistry she shares with Mann is fantastic, as she balances out his self loathing with on point realism.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a meta-like experience. The aforementioned mocking of teen movies is on the surface, but the short films that Greg and Earl make are brilliant inside jokes that only the nerdiest of movie nerds will get.
Gomez-Rejon, who has strictly directed TV shows to this point, is a Michel Gondry Starter Kit. The script allows for him to be exceptionally creative with angles and unique camera shots. There are times when the camera pans sideways, showing everything horizontally that only adds to the uniqueness of the movie.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a different teen movie experience. The kids don’t talk like adults or make adult decisions, which destroys the legitimacy of movies such as this one.
Simply put, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an honest look at the awful life experience of cancer and how people live, laugh, and love their way through it.