Written by Jesse Andrews / Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke
Rachel: It’s ok to be silent once in a while.
ME AN EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is literally plucky from the moment it opens. Not only are we treated to a harp being plucked away at to usher us into this precious experience, but between the charming animated opening sequence and the prepossessing tone of the narration, it is clear that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is about to give his audience something that is abundantly imaginative and free. You will be instantly taken in by this unique film and you will be deeply moved and delighted by the time it is done with you.
The aforementioned narrator is a soon to be high school graduate named Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). Despite his scrawny nature, he anchors the film with unexpected weight and everything we are allowed to see in his world – Pittsburgh, present day – is shown to us through his eyes and his unwittingly biased filter. A great deal of this film’s success rests, comfortably at that, upon Mann’s endearing and honest embodiment of this young man. Teenagers are often unintentionally ridiculous creatures, but they’re still trying to make their mark and we get to explore this bizarre dichotomy thoroughly through this character. As Greg stands on coffee tables while talking on the phone and slinks backwards on to the floor into his bedroom for no discernible reason other than really having no idea where to put himself at any given moment, we are introduced to a character that is instantly lovable and one that you want to see succeed in finding his true voice.
In the meantime, we have to rely on Greg’s uncertain voice to tell us this particular story, which focuses on his last year of high school and what he deems to be an inherently “doomed” friendship. Greg doesn’t do friends; that’s far too much commitment and far too vulnerable a position for him to handle. He keeps his distance from everyone at school, only getting so close as to not seem uninterested, but not too close as to form any meaningful bond. Even Earl (RJ Cyler), his best friend since he was a small boy, is referred to as a co-worker. All of these issues inevitably make it very challenging for Greg when his doting mother (played by the wonderful Connie Britton) insists he befriend a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with Leukaemia. As they explore their friendship further, we are left to wonder whether Greg thinks it doomed because Rachel could die or because he just doesn’t like himself enough to think anyone would want to be his friend once they get to know him.
I’m not sure when young people dying of cancer replaced vampires and werewolves as the go to topic for adolescent fare, but it should be known that ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is not THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. The latter is a fantastic film and had me in tears incessantly throughout but, as real as the film strives to be and succeeds mostly in being, it is still reasonably romanticized. ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is not the least bit concerned with anything that remotely resembles romance. It is more concerned with the adolescent experience and how coming face to face with death either forces you to grow up fast or regress even faster. These kids don’t know who they are yet. They may know facets of themselves if they’re lucky, but that doesn’t mean they know what to do with that information. How does someone who struggles every day to find themselves process the possibility of never becoming who they’re meant to become?
Mann and Cooke are magical together. These two will have you both on the floor and in tears as needed. With all romantic inklings out of the way, we are able to genuinely focus on their delicate, developing (and doomed) friendship. Their conversation consists of mostly inane topics, but as they don’t know how to talk about her cancer and the real chance of her death, they need to fill the silence with humour and wit. The irony between them is that, while Rachel is dying and can’t do anything to stop that from happening, Greg is doing everything he can to avoid actually having a life. And even though this friendship is helping Greg to grow without his even realizing, he isn’t the one dying after all, so it is a surprise to no one when Rachel is the first to realize that there is often more honesty in silence. Still, it is no less satisfying to eventually watch Greg run out of things to say simply because he can no longer find ways to avoid saying what he is really feeling.
In addition to being one of the most adult films about adolescents I’ve ever seen, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is also a movie that is in love with cinema itself. Greg and Earl remake many a foreign or classic film in their spare time (think “A Sockwork Orange” or “2:48 PM Cowboy”) and much of ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL focuses on their troubled attempt to make an original film for Rachel. As they struggle to make it come together, it becomes clear that they just aren’t there yet, that they still either don’t know what to say or how to trust their instincts enough to say anything out loud. It is truly touching to see Greg finally realize that sometimes you just have to stop trying so hard to say the right thing and just say whatever it is inside of you that has been dying to come out.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL feels very much like that kind of story, like Gomez-Rejon had something of great import to say and just let it out in one grand sweep without worry or concern about where it would go or how it would get there. Of course, that isn’t really true; Gomez-Rejon put an immense amount of care and warmth into this project. He just made it seem spontaneous and look really easy. In that sense, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is a superbly, well-crafted film that feels very honest, very intimate and very timely. It may be a film about death but when it’s done, it will have you bursting with life.
How many sheep would you give Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?