Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Produced by Jeremy Dawson, Dan Fogelman, and Steven M. Rales. Written by Jesse Andrews. Release date: June 12, 2015.
It feels almost inevitable that a movie about a girl dying of cancer becomes something that either tugs at your heartstrings or makes you roll your eyes. There really isn’t any middle ground with this type of premise. Either it emotionally compels you, or it repulses you with how melodramatic and saccharine it is. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, at least for me, is the former, in large part because of how well it sidesteps the latter.
Our lead is “Me,” also known as Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school student with low self-esteem who spends his time either alone or making silly parodies of famous movies with his “colleague” – he refuses to call him a friend – “Earl” (RJ Cyler). Greg’s mother (Connie Britton), convinces him to hang out with the “Dying Girl,” Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. Reluctantly, Greg does so, and soon enough the three of them become friends, in large part because all of the falsity that often comes when dealing with sick people gets cut right out. Greg is blunt with Rachel, as she requests, and removing all of the cheese and cliche from the dialogue allows them to have deep and insightful interactions, which is from whence much of the film’s joy derives.
The story follows a path that won’t come across to many as overly fresh, at least not on paper. Look at a synopsis of the film and you’ll notice that there are few original moments – you might even think it’s a more indie version of The Fault in Our Stars, except without the central romance. That’s because this is a film that wallows in the small moments, whose dialogue and character interactions are so spot-on that you can’t help but start to care about everyone involved, and where what looks boring on paper is a joy when playing out on-screen.
It also has more to it than just the “girl gets a new friend after being diagnosed with cancer” aspect. Greg has very little direction in life, and this experience has him grow as a person, and begin to find his way. As a coming-of-age movie, even disregarding the cancer portion of the plot, it’s a success. Greg is a very funny, smart, and interesting character, and his growth is part of the reason Me and Earl and the Dying Girl works so well. His voiceover narration is hilarious and self-aware, his interactions with other characters are always amusing, and Thomas Mann turns in the best performance of his early career.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is pretty darn close to perfect.
That same praise can also be attributed to Olivia Cooke, whose Rachel is the type of character for whom you want to feel all of the sympathy, but who doesn’t want that from you. She’s strong, and doesn’t act like most other cancer patients you’ll see in the movies. I mean, at least in this century, the two best – and probably least conventional – cancer movies are probably this and 50/50. They’re both really funny movies who treat their subject matter with respect, not pity, and succeed mostly in the smaller, more intimate moments.
If Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a problem, it might come from the “Earl” character, who comes dangerously close to falling into the “Magical Negro” trope, and is by far the most underdeveloped character, despite potentially having the most interesting back story. He comes from a harder home life than anyone else in the film, but we don’t explore it a whole lot. He also disappears for long stretches of time, usually only popping up when other characters need his advice. RJ Cyler is really good in the role, too, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of him.
As an exploration of teenage friendship combined with a coming-of-age story, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is pretty darn close to perfect. It cuts through the saccharine melodrama that typically fills these types of films, and as a result comes across as a fresh take on a relatively well-explored subject. It’s fantastic.
Bottom Line: Good acting, intelligent and funny writing, subversions of cliches, and a ton of emotionally compelling moments make it easy to see why it won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Recommendation: I loved Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from start to finish. It’s one of the year’s best films so far, and it’s something I’d pretty much consider a must-watch.[rating=4.5]