Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward, self-loathing senior student at Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School. Though he goes out of his way to separate himself from all the high school cliques by befriending as many as he can, even the Goths and the free-styling druggie, the only one he hangs out with consistently is his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), aka “co-worker” ’cause of all the low-budget, crappy parodies of Criterion classics they’ve made together.
After learning from his mother (Connie Britton) that a fellow student, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia, he is forced by her to befriend her as an effort of support. Neither Greg or Rachel are enthused about this at first, but over time the two become good friends after discovering they have more in common than they expected.
Well… you know… minus the fact that she’s dying and he isn’t.
From the title, the quirky voice-over narration, the hip, Rushmore-esque scene title intros and the overt need for all of us to know and appreciate how “different” it is, not to mention it always helps to just give a character cancer, it’s understandable that some might find Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to be an unbearably too much precious for its own good. And admittedly, that was my impression during the first five minutes – you know, the film that might as well as have a blurb slapped on the top of the poster in all caps that says, “IT’S SO INDIE YOU WILL PROFUSELY VOMIT ALL OVER YOUR PATHETIC OBSCURE BAND NONE OF YOUR FRIENDS GIVE A SHIT ABOUT T-SHIRT FROM URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!”
Yet like a small, cute puppy just clamoring for my attention, I couldn’t help but be won over by this film’s charm thanks to the wonderful performances by its three young stars.
Now, even though the genre wants you to believe no other genres are as fresh and inventive as it is, the indie format by now has unfortunately become just as cliche as every other one. As I mentioned up above, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does fall into the same quirky indie trappings from time to time. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon still crafts an imperfect but winning effort that hits enough right notes, peppering the film with plenty of wit, which is assisted by writer Jesse Andrews’s (adapting the script from his own novel) natural dialogue, and creative camerawork from cinematographer Chung-hoon Chug.
The driving force here is the relationship that develops between Greg and Rachel, one that refreshingly doesn’t bud into an obligatory romance. Not that I didn’t enjoy The Fault in Our Stars. If you read my review of that film, you know I really liked that film as well, but not every cancer story has to turn into an ill-fated “Romeo and Juliet meets chemotherapy” romance. Though the leads are low-profile, they aren’t obscure unknowns and show great potential. Thomas Mann effectively captures Greg’s self-loathing “whatever” attitude (which comes to a head during a believably heartbreaking, one-shot take argument between he and Rachel), while giving him enough growth as a character through the bond he shares with Rachel. Through Greg, we see that cancer deeply affects more than just the one afflicted with the disease. Olivia Cooke, who was one of the very few bright spots of the lackluster horror films Ouija and The Quiet Ones, is absolutely wonderful as Rachel. Never once does her performance pander to the audience for sympathy. Her suffering feels 100% real.
RJ Cyler’s performance may not get the recognition that Mann and Cooke’s will undoubtedly get, but he shares a natural rapport with Mann (their ridiculous parodies reminded me of the “sweded” versions done by Mos Def and Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind), and brings more depth and voice of reason to Earl than his typical teen obsession over “playing with dem titties” might show at first.
The more recognizable faces show up in the supporting roles. On paper they’re all predictable cliche types: the friend’s boozy, flirtatious mom, the one eccentric parent, the concerned other parent and the wise but oh-so-hip teacher. But the fine supporting work transcends the tropes they’re playing, though Nick Offerman, who’s usually funny, is the one exception. It’s not so much his fault as it is him getting stuck playing the caricature role of the quirky, off-kilter, mumu-wearing dad of Greg’s that feels a little out of place. Molly Shannon, on the other hand, turns in a strong supporting performance that at first glance appears like it’s the dopey wine-guzzling mother next door, but Shannon gradually reveals more to her role as we begin to see not a drunk, flirty cliche but a mother trying so hard to cope with watching her own daughter succumb to this disease.
Though some missteps are taken throughout this film’s journey, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl overcomes its flaws through Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s solid direction and Jesse Andrews’s well-written dialogue, both ably blending the seriousness of its subject with the lighthearted charm of its humor. The heart and strength of this film, though, lies in its three meaningful characters (the “me”, the “Earl” and the – well, you know) that are performed with great authenticity by Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler. It’s a predictable path, but it’s a path still well worth taking.
I give Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a B+ (★★★).