Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Review
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward, self-loathing teenager, wandering the halls of his high school with a relaxed and mellow attitude. He’s not anti-social, as he goes out of his way to talk to people of all different social groups and cliques, fully intent on never getting too close to call them “friends” and operating just basically enough so he can never become fully immersed in their life or embarrass himself. His friend, though he won’t call him that, is Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who has been by his side for years, as the two make low-budget parodies of classic films (IE: A Sockwork Orange is their version of A Clockwork Orange, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless becomes Breath Less, a film about a man’s attachment to his inhaler, and Midnight Cowboy becomes 2:48 P.M. Cowboy). Despite these films blatantly being awful, the two continue their productions for reasons they can’t even adequately explain.
One day, Greg’s mother makes Greg visit the home of Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a girl Greg’s age who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, to express his well wishes and give her some company. Right from the get-go, despite being loved and embraced by Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon), who is constantly sipping alcohol following her divorce and her daughter’s diagnosis, Rachel detects the obligation of Greg’s visit. Nonetheless, the two make casual small talk, with Rachel revealing her normal side and Greg continuing to harp on his awkward, self-hating side with little tact and emotion. He remains in a constant state of mellow carelessness at all times, but grows close to Rachel, even going the distance to working with Earl to make a movie for her when she begins chemotherapy and becomes increasingly withdrawn.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl immediately feels like a Wes Anderson picture that tackles the realm of quirky teenage films so heavily that it becomes twee and almost petty. The opening sequence alone reminded me how tired I was of hearing stories that begin with “this is not your typical high school love story” or the continued affirmation of the main character’s unique story by saying “this is the part where her and I should kiss” or “this is not your typical romance.” This has gone from being subversive and innovative to a cloying attempt to be original and unique, incessantly reminding the audience that your story is different.
Yet, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is special because, much like Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, released last week, it reminds how people are much more complex than films often portray. Dope focused on the perils of living in South Central Los Angeles and getting caught up in gang activity all while struggling to remain true to yourself, find yourself, and stay in tune with your morals. With that, Dope showed how a person is not easily defined and there were many shades of gray in defining a human and his choices.
This film operates on the same plane. Scenes with Greg and Rachel do not go the way we expect at all. At no moment does Greg comfort Rachel by holding her, caressing her, kissing her, or giving her the reactionary statement that “everything’s gonna be all right.” At no point does he really ever give her a reason to smile because he is being flattering or particularly kind to her. Quite frequently, I found myself being really surprised at his behavior; it’s unlike most behavior we see between two adolescents in film, but yet, not uncommon of adolescents in the real world.
Films have shaped our ideas about teenagers in a way that paints many of them as stereotypes or members of an easily defined class. Films like this, Kids, and The Breakfast Club have worked to paint richer, more realistic pictures, showing the grayness in defining adolescents and showing that the emotions they feel, the decisions they make, and the paths they work to forge for themselves can be just as daunting as the priorities many adults face each and every day. If nothing else, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reminds, if not, informs, that teens aren’t easily defined caricatures – some sit before computers and edit their own makeshift films with their friend with posters of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows neatly hung on the walls behind them.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also mixes the brutally honest, complex emotions of The Perks of Being a Wallflower with the basic premise (but not mawkish sentimentality and ultimate corniness) of The Fault in Our Stars. Mann proves to be an interesting character, almost an anti-hero in his ability to love or be loved because of his own stubborn attitude and coldness to the idea of personal connection. Kushner also gives a tremendously affecting performance on a low-key level, with emotional scenes that hit right on the nose. They’re not too overdrawn and they’re not too cutely resolved or painted; they’re brutally, unequivocally real.
The only thing burdening the film is its obsession with its own quirkiness and its increasingly irritating ability to try and remain meta and different. The film’s insistence on its own desire to be unique unintentionally undermines Jesse Andrews’ compelling, heartwrenching story and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (who also directed the strong remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown) directing, which resembles the astute, symmetrical-precision of Wes Anderson. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, however, ultimately succeeds in showing humans, particularly adolescents, as they naturally are – complex, sometimes detached, but never boring.