In Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high-school loner who invisibly floats the hallways maintaining low-commitment, casually acquainted relationships with everyone in the school — never getting too close, but never drawing attention to himself by being too far away. As a guy with low-self esteem and a lack of self belief, Greg bides his time by making parody films with his only close friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he calls a “co-worker”. When his mother (Connie Britton) and father (Nick Offerman) urge him to reach out to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a long time acquaintance from school who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg complains that he does not know her that well before following through to appease his mother, displaying the self-absorption and the fear of dealing with any serious topic, such as death, that is prevalent in his character and in most young people his age. They eventually bond and begin a deep friendship that has a meaningful affect on both of them. Greg eventually agrees to make a film for Rachel as she battles the cancer and begins chemotherapy, but he struggles to make it as he is unsure of what the film should be and what he wants it to say.
Warning: The following contains spoilers.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that is really easy to fall in love with; it is also a very difficult film to like. It deals with some heavy emotional stuff and handles it — for the most part — with tact and honesty. Everything in the film feels like a true representation of what life is like emotionally for most seventeen year olds, yet it is often painful to watch the underdeveloped, self-discovering characters navigate such rocky, emotional terrain. Most of the time you want to shake Greg into professing his affection for Rachel; you want him to cross that barrier so that she will know just how much she means to him. But he is immature, inexperienced with life and death, and still unable to give that piece of himself away. He knows the possible outcome, it is in the title after all, and cannot bear the sting of irreparable loss being any more painful than it already is. But he seventeen. He is learning. He does the best he can at that moment in his life: he sits by her side as she loses her hair, attempts to make her laugh through the tears, and shows his love the only way he is capable, through the shared experience of watching the silly movies he has created.
They often connect silently while watching these films and it is clear they have a profound relationship, but by the film’s conclusion it feels like much has been left unsaid. The comparison to The Fault in Our Stars is inevitable, rightfully so, and kudos to the writer (Jesse Andrews) for not forcing a romantic aspect into their relationship. The friendship between them is enough and feels very real for the terrible situation Rachel is forced to deal with. Yet, although you feel the affection between Greg and Rachel, the love and complexity of their bond is never professed verbally. Surely, the filmmakers wanted to avoid those sappy, overused sentiments (“you mean so much to me”, “I don’t want you to die”, “thank you for being by my side during all of this”), but those are lines that take courage and this film could have used a little cliche or sappiness towards the end. Each scene feels wrought with the tension that they both want to say something like this, but just don’t know how. They are too young, too confused, and too scared, which is why it is so tough to watch as her condition worsens. Each scene drips with the anticipation that one of them will cross this line into emotional surrender.
At the film’s climax, a scene impossible not to cry during, Greg finally shows Rachel the film he has made for her as she lies in a hospital bed, having decided to stop her chemotherapy treatments. This is his profession of his feelings, presented to her in a series of colorful images and stop-motion scenes that relate to experiences they have shared and inside jokes they have together. What is actually on the video is not really important, it is the work he put into it and the act of sharing it with her that shows her just how much their relationship has meant to each of them. It is very touching, but after it is all over you are left wishing that something would have been said aloud, while making eye-contact or embracing one another.
The acting is very good by everyone involved, but Olivia Cooke is a notch above the rest, turning in a very convincing and heartbreakingly vulnerable performance as Rachel. The original score by Brian Eno is terrific and adds a really emotional element to the film and its often very depressing scenes. The dialogue is well written and clever, though sometimes it feels like the script thinks it is a little too clever. There are also too many obscure film references that only cinephiles will be able to relate to them all, and their many appearances wear out their welcome and charm after a while.
Another primary issue with the film is that Greg is often very unlikable and we are forced to see everything through his eyes. He is young and has not yet become the person he will ultimately be, but the detached persona he presents at first makes him come off sometimes as really whiny and self-contained within his own bubble. Obviously, it is just a defense mechanism for shielding his own insecurities, but at times it is difficult to like him as a character.
Also, the film forces the audience to adopt an egocentric viewpoint as everything seems to happen in relation to Greg; what Rachel is dealing with is often seen in relation to how it is affecting Greg, which sometimes feels like a disservice to the independence and merit of her own character. It is apparent even in the title, which presents “me” as the subject and relegates Rachel’s role to “dying girl” in relation to the subject, which is an awful reduction of her character. We get that the title might seem clever and sounds cool by using rhyme, but it is really a horrible title and they should have come up with something else.
It is still a very well made film though with a lot of depth and, like its lead character, a very caring heart buried underneath all of the sarcasm and humor. While not without its faults, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a really good film that circumvents the pitfalls and cliches that are often difficult to avoid in film’s of its kind. It proves to be a very emotionally resonant and complicated story about a young friendship and is a welcome entry into the coming-of-age genre.