Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Written by: Jesse Andrews by on his novel.
Starring: Thomas Mann (Greg), RJ Cyler (Earl), Olivia Cooke (Rachel), Nick Offerman (Greg's Dad), Connie Britton (Greg's Mom), Molly Shannon (Denise), Jon Bernthal (Mr. McCarthy), Katherine Hughes (Madison).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a movie that contains just about every cliché in the book about movie teenagers in general, and movies about teenagers with cancer in specific, that knows each that it contains every cliché in the book, and actually tells the audience this fact, right before it indulges in those clichés anyway. This is the movie’s way of winking at the audience, of holding itself above a movie like The Fault in Our Stars, which unapologetically indulges in those same clichés. If you’re going to do that however, I think it’s probably mandatory that you actually do upend those clichés in some way, instead of just laughing at them, and then indulging them anyway – and that is something that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl never does. It’s just as hokey as The Fault in Our Stars is – while it laughs at just how hokey those movies are. There is a lot of energy in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and some clever moments, but I could never really get over the movie looking down at movies, and their audiences, while at the same time being precisely the same damn thing.
The film stars Thomas Mann as Greg, a high school senior who has glided through like and school practically untouched. He loves old movies, and he and his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), who for some self-involved reason Greg refuses to call his best friend, even though that is precisely what he is, do silly remakes of their favorites – spoofs that takes the classics of world cinema, and turn them into something goofy. The snippets of these movies that we see are actually quite amusing – perhaps they are the best thing in the movie itself – but sadly, they are not the focus. The focus is Greg’s friendship with Rachel (Olivia Cook) – a fellow student that Greg doesn’t really know, but has just been diagnosed with cancer. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) orders him to hang out with her, and so he dutifully does – she not wanting his pity friendship, and feeling even worse when he is honest with her about why he’s there – but she consents anyway. Of course, the two do become actual friends.
The intentions of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl are, I believe, honorable. It is a film about just how self-involved teenagers are, and about the process that we all go through when we finally start to realize that there is a world outside of our teenage selves and we start to do things not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Greg is the main character of the movie, and also its narrator, so I suppose we can forgive him for being perhaps the most self-involved teenager in cinema history, and not really seeing even those closest to him clearly at all. But that doesn’t forgive the movie for making Greg the center of every other characters world as well – with only a hint or two of what their lives actually are. Earl is as clichéd a character as they come – he’s black, apparently lives in the scary part of town, speaks in an offensively stereotyped way that no one else in the movie does, and seems to exist only so that late in the movie, when Greg needs it, he can provide him the insight that Greg lacks. So yes, once again, we have a black character whose entire role seems to be to help a white character achieve some personal mission. Rachel isn’t all that much better – hell, she’s dying of cancer, and yet her entire role seems to be about nurturing Greg and his artistic ambitions as well – indulging him literally right to end. Its one thing for a teenager to think he’s the center of the universe – the problem is, so does the movie.
All this probably sounds like I hated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – but I really didn’t. I did feel annoyed by it at times, but the film is energetic, sometimes quite funny, and has a few moments that actually do feel real, despite the films best efforts to undercut those moments with its ironic detachment. Newcomer Olivia Cooke is a star in the making – she makes Rachel much more genuine that she really has any right to be. Mann is actually quite funny as well – and does a killer Werner Herzog impression.
Yet Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also kind of the ultimate Sundance movie – it doesn’t shock me that the film was a hit at the festival, where it won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. It’s the kind of movie that always does well at festivals like Sundance, and then when it comes out never quite connects with audiences (the film was supposed to be the indie hit of the summer – that didn’t happen). The film is as cliché driven as anything that comes out of Hollywood. That isn’t necessarily a problem – sometimes clichés are clichés because they work. But when it mocks those clichés, and then blatantly gives into them that’s problem.