Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl explores the concept of living with a terminal illness and what effect that has on the people around you from the teenage perspective.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a self confessed social outcast but not in the negative sense. The film goes to great lengths to establish that he does everything necessary to be noticed by the right people but not too heavily. He basically blends in without being completely invisible which seems to suit him down to the ground. He spends most of his time with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) who shares his love of obscure foreign movies. Together they make very low budget whimsically titled films with clever puns of famous movies serving as these names. The film cuts to clips from their handiwork frequently and they manage to be legitimately funny amidst a fairly morbid backdrop.
The thing that struck me about Greg is that he feels like a real teenager rather than the standard precocious “movie teen” with wisdom far beyond his years. He goes through life with a vague disinterest and doesn’t seem all that engaged with anything outside of film. It all feels genuine without coming across as unnecessarily stroppy. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t really seem to care when he finds out that one of his classmates has Leukemia. The fact that he only decides to visit because his mother forces him to makes a lot of sense without seeming mean spirited.
Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is the “dying girl” in question who reacts to her diagnosis in a realistic way. At first it doesn’t seem to hit her but as the narrative progresses along with her illness the reality of what’s coming really starts to sink in. Cooke is excellent in the role with her performance being a dignified and realistic portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with something unthinkable. Every emotion you would expect to be there is represented. There are moments where she is putting a brave face on it, others where she sinks into an incurable melancholy and many scenes where she just seems to be getting on with life while she still can.
Earl is something of an enigma within the whole thing. He’s characterised as having a distance from his emotions so the flat portrayal of his character makes sense from that point of view but I always found him a little awkward within the framework of the film. His characterisation and motivations are mostly pretty ill defined which makes any decision he eventually makes seem more than a little random. One moment he is seeing Rachel as an object that Greg should seek as a conquest and the next he’s encouraging him to act like a gentleman and buy her ice cream. This could have something to do with him getting to know Rachel and appreciating her after that point but there’s such a disconnect in his actions that I was never quite willing to buy it. I’m sure he could have been a better character given more time to develop but he tends to come and go from the story too often for that to really happen.
Greg and Rachel’s friendship is the strongest aspect of the film as it never feels any less than authentic. It starts off being really awkward as Greg is only being forced to spend time with Rachel but it gradually blossoms into something much more profound. Anyone expecting the standard formula of them falling for each other in these dire circumstances will be disappointed as it never goes anything beyond friendship. I found this to be incredibly refreshing as I kept expecting the romance to worm its way in but thankfully it never happens. I like it when films defy convention and do something more interesting.
Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke have such a natural chemistry when on screen together that it helps to make even the most heavy handed dialogue exchanges seem credible. It works for these characters because they do seem philosophically minded so the dialogue makes sense. I did find some of it hard to swallow but I can’t deny that it worked for these characters.
The film is reasonably well paced with enough humourous breaks in the morbid subject matter to keep it from becoming too depressing most of the time. There is some excellent comic relief from Greg’s Dad (Nick Offerman) who is always doing or saying something completely off the wall. Jon Bernthal’s Mr. McCarthy offers plenty of laughs as well so there’s enough to distract from the inevitable conclusion spoiled by the title of the film.
I did find that the film lays on the emotional turmoil a little thick towards the end. There was something of an onslaught of morbid scenes that felt like an obvious attempt to tug on the heart strings of the audience. Due to this the ending seems to linger on a lot longer than it really should. None of it was especially bad but it was definitely a little exploitative.
Stylistically the film is very interesting with animated cutaways to show a particular view or emotion threaded throughout the narrative. These are welcome distractions and definitely punctuate the emotion involved in a creative way. It also gives a bit of insight into how Greg sees the world and how he can best describe how he feels to the audience. It definitely remains something that stands out after the film has ended.
An interesting exploration of the inevitability of death from the perspective of someone who has barely started their life. It also capably explores the effect this has on the people around them.
The characters are all well realised for the most part with Greg and Rachel coming out the strongest. Their friendship makes up the core of the film and it’s appreciated that it doesn’t descend into the normal realms of teen romance. It simply progresses as a realistic and well developed friendship. Some of the dialogue is a little too awkwardly philosophical but it works considering how the characters are set up.
Earl doesn’t fare quite so well as he suffers from a lack of meaningful development. His characteristics and motivations seem inconsistent through the running time. He is a good character when he appears but there’s too little for him to get a proper idea of what sort of person he really is.
The film is well paced and the animated cutaways to show a particular emotion are really nicely done. They punctuate how Greg is feeling perfectly and offer a welcome distraction from the morbid subject matter. The only real drawback is that towards the end of the film the emotional heft is laid on a bit thick for my tastes.
I would definitely say this is worth a look as it’s a unique exploration of a difficult theme from a younger perspective. It’s nice and stylish while having mostly well realised characters. Some of the humour works as well so there are worse ways to spend your movie time.