Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a smash hit at Sundance, winning both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for drama—and, at the risk of insulting those festival-goers, that makes perfect sense. The film uses cinema as a cultural shorthand, flattering people for getting inside jokes about Midnight Cowboy, Apocalpyse Now, Fitzcarraldo, and the like. (Who better than a film festival audience to pat themselves on the back for getting all these references?) It’s also extremely concerned with its indie bona fides. “If this were a normal movie,” our young hero says on more than one occasion, “this would be the moment where we lock eyes and kiss. But this isn’t a normal movie.” To add to the film’s self-consciously “edgy” feel, filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon often shoots from quirky angles—sideways, upside down, through a window, with a wide lens. The film basically screams: INDEPENDENT FILM HERE!! COMING THROUGH!
The problem is, once you get past those things and a few more indie tics—some twee animation, precious title cards for each section (“The Part After All the Other Parts” is the final card)—it’s actually pretty conventional stuff. Certainly Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be insulted to be compared to The Fault in Our Stars, but the truth is, they’re very similar films. If anything, I found Fault to be more emotionally honest, because it wasn’t hiding behind a mask of hipster cool.
Our hero is 17-year-old Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), who navigates the hell of high school by remaining pleasantly detached. He has a passing friendship with all the school cliques, but doesn’t belong to any one in particular. Instead, he spends most of his time hiding out in a favorite teacher’s office with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he refers to as his “co-worker” because, somehow the word “friend” is too risky for him. Together, Greg and Earl make short, funny send-ups of their favorite films, with punny titles like Brew Velvet, A Sockwork Orange, and My Dinner With Andre the Giant. (They’ve apparently made 40 of these films, which seems nearly impossible from a logistical standpoint, particularly since they all seem to have pretty good production values.)
One day, Greg comes home from school and is informed by his mother (Connie Britton) that she just got an upsetting phone call from his friend Rachel’s mother: Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg is genuinely sad but notes that they’re barely friends at all. Regardless, his mom insists that he call her.
The fact that Greg and Rachel were not really friends was a minor detail that managed to bug the crap out of me. Why didn’t the film say they’d been friends in elementary school, but then drifted apart? Parents are always thinking that you’re still besties with your grade school chums. That would’ve explained everything—Rachel’s mom calling with the news of her daughter’s diagnosis (and later enveloping Greg in a too-long hug); Greg’s mom insisting Greg call Rachel. But no, the film couldn’t be bothered to fill in those gaps.
Anyway, Greg calls Rachel and rather than being diffident and awkward, he’s immediately the funniest, suavest guy on the planet: “Your doctor called in a prescription and that prescription is Greg Gaines,” he says. (This was one of the many ways the film reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars. The teens, Greg in particular, banter like they’re in a Noel Coward play.) So Greg goes over to Rachel’s house, where they have an elaborate, overly-written talk about masturbation and pillows. From there, a friendship forms between them (not a sappy romance, mind you). Eventually, Greg introduces Rachel to Earl and she finds out about their film project. It’s Greg’s crush Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) who suggests that Greg and Earl make a film for Rachel, the pressure of which freaks Greg out so much he’s barely functional.
Since I’m focusing on the negative, I should point out that the film is often quite funny, extremely engaging, and directed with almost preternatural confidence by newcomer Gomez-Rejon, who before this had mostly worked in television. The young cast is uniformly excellent. Mann is an appealing and natural actor, who never mugs, and sometimes even allows Greg to just stare off into space, slack-jawed, as teenage boys do. And Cyler makes Earl a singular creation—practical, loyal, but increasingly tired of Greg’s tiresome narcissism (in that sense, he serves as a surrogate for the audience). As for Cooke’s Rachel? She’s smart, world-wise, and touchingly stoic in the face of her illness.
The adults don’t fare quite as well. Connie Britton is such a good actress, she manages to transcend her character’s “overbearing mother” schtick, but the film doesn’t give her much to work with. Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) is another one of these quirky indie creations, a robe-wearing philosopher who spends much of his day cooking obscure foodie delicacies like fried cuttlefish and rabbit sausage. Weirdest of all is Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom. Why, when she first sees Greg, does she embrace him in that bizarre hug and talk about how handsome she is? Are we supposed to see her as some sort of Mrs. Robinson type? Instead, she just seems like a hot mess, who drinks too much and smiles too broadly and can barely keep it together. In this film’s teen-centric world we never see her interact with her daughter, not even once. She never seems real. (Score one for The Fault in Our Stars, by the way, which actually cared about the inner lives of its grown-ups.)
The same is true of Greg. Despite Mann’s excellent performance, I never fully believed in him. Throughout the film he insists that he’s insecure, thinks he’s ugly, is afraid to get close to people, but again and again, his behavior suggests otherwise. He actually seems incredibly comfortable in his own skin—he’s more like a high school cool guy than an insecure loner. And no, this isn’t one of those movies where a morose young man is brought to life by a free-spirited girl. If anything, Greg is the manic pixie dream boy here. But it’s the same basic arithmetic: Rachel’s dying isn’t really about Rachel at all. It’s about Greg. In fact, everything that happens in the film is about Greg. Teens are notoriously narcissistic, but the film comes dangerously close to adopting Greg’s world view.