I have a harsh critique of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but that critique doesn’t touch what makes this film worthwhile, what makes it worthy of recommendation. The heart of this film is in the performances by Thomas Mann as Greg, RJ Cyler as Earl, and Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Greg is a caucasian slacker with a stay at home academic dad. He’s neurotic and afraid of intimacy. Earl is his best friend but he unable say that out loud and risk rejection no matter how unlikely it is. Rachel is the title’s ‘dying girl’ recently diagnosed with cancer. Greg’s mom forces him to go meet her. Like any good coming of age cancer kid movie, hijinks and heartbreak ensue. The performances of these characters are as far from phony as you can get and are a good reason to buy a ticket right now.
The surface texture of the film could be accused of phoniness though. Like with similar yet tonally different recent coming of age film Dope, this film takes place over the main character’s last year of high school. Both these films feature Quirky Teens doing distinct authentic things.
But there’s a rub with the authenticity thing. What makes something authentic?
Dope represents an aging fan of 90s hip hop processing what he thinks would be the awesomest way to pass his old neighborhood’s rites of passage in the modern day. It comes complete with observations of all the social media tropes and new fangled technologies that affect How We Live Now. As a consequence some of the surface texture elements of that film like the interests of the core group of kids and that they play in an awesome band are more a wish fulfillment projection than something that feels like it grew out of the characters. Egregious name dropping of people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Aaron Swartz immediately dates the film and marks that it is trying just a little too hard.
In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the main character Greg is a cinephile. We never really find out why it matters. It does not touch the story in any meaningful way. Largely Greg and Earl just mine cinema for bad puns and short skits that reveal that maybe they are missing the whole point of these films. Greg has a Criterion poster for François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and once when he’s sad we see him watch the film late at night before the camera pans out the window. But what does that mean? We don’t see Greg as the film concludes, we don’t know what he thinks of Antoine’s journey in that film. The film treats his love of film like it treats the shorts that he makes with Earl, as sort of a distraction. A more cynical man would say the film is pandering to the festival set. This is the thread that disappointed me most. The presence of the cinephilia was just to make Greg seem deeper or more interesting. You could have switched it out with an enthusiasm for reviewing cell phones on youtube with no major plot points needing to change other than the throwaway skit gags. It was texture for its own sake, the greatest sin of independent cinema.
Like with Dope, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a problem with growing up, and a preoccupation with showing a ‘good’ college as some sort of marker for being grown up or being at the end of a journey. Coming of age implicitly ends up meaning not going to community college, not entering the workforce after high school or any other path that could be taken. Also, the importance of graduating high school is never discussed but rather assumed like it’s an expectation and incredibly easy to do. I don’t get to write about what I wish was in the film. I must judge what is in a film though not the different possible life situations that are absent.
I do get to say that the characters don’t grow. In either film. In Dope it’s about being 110% nerd while still representing your neighborhood. It’s about a validating action that has a definitive completion. In Dope the validating action the main character does to prove himself is selling $100k of drugs that he uniquely brands and makes go viral on the internet. The main character must execute a set of steps, complete a recipe and be a real man. Me and Earl takes an approach that is less distinctly masculine, Greg needs to be a person, to care for once in his life. He needs to take steps to emotionally fulfill another person and thus fulfill himself. The whole current of selfishness that runs through the film and its focus on Greg at the expense of Rachel would be unbearable if the film wasn’t so solidly from Greg’s perspective. There’s quite some bandwidth for the discussion of Greg’s self obsession. Greg comes to realize that maybe he didn’t know Rachel that well by the end of the film. In this way maybe he has grown. But the material ends that Greg gains, getting to go to college where he wants, subverts this and takes the focus off what I wish was the focus of coming of age films, the intangibles and maturity of adulthood.
I don’t really like where the film goes but I really like the people who bring us there. Greg feels like a bunch of guys I know but it’s his unlikability and his muppet face that grounds him. I want to see RJ Cyler in everything now after his turn as Earl who is the friend we all have that really probably shouldn’t put up with us but does anyway. Olivia Cooke plays Rachel as guarded but fun. Her interactions with Greg where he blusters through her defenses are adorable and affecting. Late in the film she carries some very hard scenes.
In addition, the supporting cast absolutely kills it. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton are Greg’s parents, a unique pairing that I wish I could have seen more of. Molly Shannon is Rachel’s mom. Jon Bernthal is that one cool tattooed teacher who let’s Greg and Earl eat in his too long library hallway of an office. All are utilized well.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing at the Oriental Theatre and the Marcus Majestic Cinema.