Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, US, 2015, 105 mins
Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes

Review by Dan Woburn

Another of this year’s breakouts from Sundance, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ book of the same name ticks all the right boxes an indie smash should.

The screenplay itself was provided by Andrews, and this sense of authenticity pervades Me and Earl; the emotions and plot progression come from a very believable, lived-in space, and it’s by either luck or skill that the author’s writing talent so easily transcends one medium to another.

Beyond this, the film ably ascends the doldrums of a genre fast becoming rote; a morbid subject matter (high school social-vagrant Greg is forced by his mother to hang out with newly-diagnosed cancer sufferer Rachel) anchored by an aloof-yet-likable, pseudo-depressed main character (played with ease by Thomas Mann, of Project X, er, fame) whose self deprecation is explained, understandable and relatable. A funny, savvy best friend with an affinity for the ladies but a heart of gold (future star RJ Cyler whose Floridian accent is only a small part of his charm), the eponymous Earl also happens to quash a few racial stereotypes along the way. The dying girl of the film’s title, the heartbreaking Olivia Cooke’s Rachel, isn’t just a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl who happens to be dying; she is actually (audible gasp) a well-rounded character; nay, a person.

Throw in some wacky parents (an on-form, if underused, Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) and a literally too-cool-for-school teacher in the guise of Jon Berthal’s tattooed history teacher Mr McCarthy (ditto on the underuse) and you’ve got a winning recipe for buzzed-about coming-of-age dramedy.

Me and Earl (and presumably, its novelistic forebearer) wisely sidesteps the obvious route of a romance between Greg and Rachel, tongue planted firmly-in-cheek as our unreliable narrator first presents us with “if this was a touching, romantic story, our eyes would meet and suddenly we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns”, before showing us the more awkward and lifelike segues into awkward silence. Indeed, it’s much more relatable to have the relationship shown between the cancer sufferer and the helpless onlooker to be platonic; we as a societal species do tend to have more friends than lovers.

The backseat-driving subplot of the film revolves around Greg and Earl’s proclivity for creating charming, badly-done remakes of classic movies pivoted on a humorous play-on-words of said movies’ titles. Imagine the Sweding from Be Kind Rewind whilst taking the piss and you’re on the right track. Usually kept secret thanks to Greg’s severe self-hatred/doubt, Earl bypasses him and decides to show Rachel the films, which she ends up loving, of course. The stop motion animation that Greg and Earl use to quaint effect finds a place in the aesthetic of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as it represents Greg’s imagination; the recurring sequence of a little felt rodent in the forest being trampled by an oblivious moose precedes the arrival of his unrequited crush in real life. It’s these creative flourishes that elevate the film above what could have been run-of-the-mill heartstring-plucking fare. It has personality.

This sense of personality is also reflected in the characters; although there isn’t enough time to elevate some of the supporting cast out of being walking quirky traits, they at least have great actors behind them to encourage their three-dimensionality – Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal bear mention here again, as their scenes are always a delight. What’s more impressive is that they never once waltz in and walk away with the scene, as the younger, more inexperienced cast firmly stand their ground.

RJ Cyler vies for MVP as his Earl carries most balanced act of comedy relief and conscience of the film; his performance is so natural that you walk away feeling mighty glad they came across him in the auditioning process; one of those roles where you can’t imagine it being played by anyone else. His big inevitable bust-up with Greg at the end of the second act is sold superbly and the two boys clearly have a connection, whether it be forced for the cameras or otherwise.

The hardest role in this film was always going to be that of the dying girl, and Olivia Cooke emerges from the forest of MTV slapdash horror to prove herself an entirely able dramatic performer. As morose and cynical as it may be, the role of cancer sufferer is fertile ground for proving young actors; in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Cooke gives a performance that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s recent benchmark-setting role in 50/50. The seeming futility of the situation and the annoying pity of her peers lead to a downward spiral of depression and frustration for Rachel that Cooke nails down to a blank stare into the middle distance.

Her relationship to Mann’s character is the lynchpin of the film and has to feel natural, and believable; which it truly ends up being. This is one of two reasons why Me and Earl was always going to be great film, because they nailed the friendship between these two from the off.

The second reason is Greg’s arc; the exploration into his character is both well-thought out and thought-provoking. His intense self-loathing is punctuated by people trying to get through to him, be it his parents, his teachers or his friends (the last of which he would never dare to actually label “friend”). There is material here ripe for dissection, and the overarching feeling behind Greg’s intense distrust of his own strengths lies behind his pessimistic viewpoint of parenthood; your mother only tells you how great you are because she has to. It’s a simple assumption that he carried around for far too long without being challenged, and then mushroomed into an ability to accept that hey, some people actually like you for you. Ironically, Greg’s self-hatred translates into self-absorption and he fails to notice the inner workings of the people around him; so much so that he doesn’t understand the decisions they make in moments crucial to them.

It’s for that reason that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stays with you; a tragic-comic offering that, while following base templates for indie dramedy, transcends all of them. It’s the traumatic, haunting memory from your youth, eternally surrounded by warm nostalgia, each often indiscernible from the other. It’ll also have you downloading the entire Brian Eno discography upon leaving the cinema, which is no bad thing for either yourself or Brian Eno.