Film Review: Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

Teenage Dramedy Avoids Cliché, But Not Sympathy

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Earl and me (not pictured: dying girl)
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Young-adult novels continue to drive the publishing industry, keeping it financially solvent even as the very concept of “reading” crumbles into the emoji-filled iPhone world around it. YA has been a boon to the film industry as well, having generated a pretty penny with adaptations such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, et al. Within the last year or so, however, the teen lit industry has turned a corner. Instead of being dominated by plucky teenage girls rebelling against repressive near-future governments while trying to decide between two sensitive-yet-hunky boys, the rage is now for realistic portrayals of teens in true-to-life situations. Last year’s book-to-movie translation of John Green’s romantic tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars proved to be a big hit ($125 million at the US box office on a $12 million budget). The trend continues with the cinematic version of Jesse Andrews’ best-selling novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who helmed several episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story”) and penned by Mr. Andrews himself, this teenage dramedy is exceedingly loyal to its source material. Given its medical similarity to
The Fault in Our Stars, a cynical adult could dismiss this “cancer chic” trend as a flash-in-the-pan rip-off of Erich Segal’s book/movie Love Story. The Fault in Our Stars trod dangerously close. But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has far more grit, wit and pop cultural savvy than Segal’s outdated weeper ever mustered.

The “Me” in the title is high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann,
Project X). A movie-worshipping outsider with middling ambition and average grades, Greg spends his weekends making cheap parodies of famous foreign films with his pal Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler). In their hands Nosferatu becomes Nose Ferret, The Third Man becomes The Turd Man, and The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros. These no-budget masterpieces are not intended for public consumption and are seen by exactly no one—not even Greg’s permissive, hippie-ish parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton).

When Greg isn’t working on his films, he’s trying his best to skate though his final year of school. He’s worked out a system by which he has casual acquaintances in every school clique, but befriends no one. (He’s so averse to the word “friend” that he even refers to constant companion Earl as his “coworker.”) Greg figures this social invisibility will allow him to pass through high school unnoticed and unmolested. These carefully laid plans fall apart, however, when his mom orders him to go hang out with a neighbor girl named Rachel (Olive Cooke,
Ouija), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg, being both a cynical narrator and a student of every film cliché in creation, goes out of his way to assure viewers this is not some typical teenage love story. There are plenty of opportunities for him to bond with the tragic young lass and for the two of them to fall madly in love. But that doesn’t happen. Over time their platonic relationship grows, allowing their personalities to rub off on one another. But there’s no kissing. Or “playing with them titties,” as Earl frequently advises. Rachel, for the most part, is sanguine with her fate. Greg is far more weirded out by the situation. Turns out he’s the one most in need of some emotional guidance. His grades are slipping, his life is in a friendless shambles, and he can’t even seem to derive any pleasure out of the short films he makes. Browbeaten by parents and classmates, Greg is talked into making a film for Rachel—something to cheer her up as she goes through chemotherapy. But Greg has never made an original film—he’s just spent his life cranking out sweded versions of other people’s art. Does he have it in him, or is he just a poseur?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets plenty of credit for its unconventional narrative. It’s a surprising film that keeps doing unexpected things. It’s also self-conscious enough to point out when it’s side-stepping the obvious. No cheap romance. No Hollywood formula. It’s a beautiful, poignant little film that avoids sappy melodrama like the plague. It has its melancholy moments. (You may even cry a little.) But there’s plenty of snarky humor and insightful jokes to even it all out. It’s also a teen-oriented film that has no mention whatsoever of Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber—yet name-drops the likes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell and Werner Herzog. Talk about not pandering to your demographic. The strength of Andrews’ narrative is undoubtedly in treating its subjects like adults. Even if they’re unsure of where life is taking them, they’re capable of as much (in some cases more) maturity than the grown-ups around them. The three titular leads do exemplary work as ordinary teenagers searching for answers, struggling to define their personalities and trying to cope with the sizable bumps life is throwing at them. Smarmy, charming, smart and emotional, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl takes all the tropes of traditional teenage romances—from Love Story to Pretty in Pink—and turns them on their ear, creating an insta-classic for today’s young adult demographic.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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