Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a story about love, not a love story. The protagonist, Greg, makes a point of noting in at least two, maybe three, separate voice-overs that this is not a typical romantic story. The film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, stands behind him, focusing on the real connections forged between Greg (Thomas Mann) and Rachel (the titular Dying Girl, played by Olivia Cooke) rather than the trivialities of attraction or flirtation, as well as Greg’s friendship with the also-eponymous Earl (RJ Cyler). Greg is a play on the stereotyped socially awkward, glaringly pale white boy, made more likeable and normal by his lifelong friendship with Earl, a stylish black boy who lives down the street and on the other side of the metaphorical tracks. The representation of Earl’s family (no dad, older brother always smoking a blunt with his aggressive pitbull) raises an eyebrow, but within the self-aware, mocking world of the film, it plays much better than it sounds (largely aided by the directorial touch of Gomez-Rejon).
There are jokes about romance and romantic clichés—inserted stop motion representations of Greg’s thoughts on high school girls and nerdy boys, Earl and his brother’s repeated mention of “Tiiiitties”—and they are much funnier given the film’s disinterest in portraying Rachel and Greg’s relationship as romantic or sexualized. Greg only starts hanging out with Rachel after his mom, the “LeBron James of nagging,” makes him go over to her house after learning of her leukemia diagnosis. Starting off on an unenthusiastic note of obligation, the “doomed friendship” (so-called in the captions that sporadically appear on screen to amusingly outline the chapters of the story) quickly beings to blossom as Greg wins a few smiles from Rachel in a delightfully bizarre discussion of pillows and sexuality. As the film goes on, their relationship continues to bloom with a refreshing emphasis on interpersonal connection rather than flirtation, a welcome deviation from the stale romantic clichés that we are all so tired of seeing.
Equally refreshing is the film’s intimate honesty, thoughtfully crafted through the narrative and stylistic subjectivity of Jesse Andrews’s screenplay and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography. Though Gomez-Rejon cites mentors Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese as strong influences, there is a very Wes Anderson-esque feeling in the film’s ability to layer a dark, human story within a seemingly light world of charming color and artifice. Scenes from the spoofs of famous films that Greg and Earl make (“A Sockwork Orange,” “Senior Citizen Kane”) and the stop motion inserts give the film heart and humor without undermining the narrative’s sincerity. The characters are slightly exaggerated to the same enjoyable effect; they may venture into caricature at times, but it works within the film’s absurdist humor. This is perhaps best exemplified in the highly-marketed scene of Greg, Earl, and Rachel eating popsicles on a stoop, though the stills don’t do justice to the moment—Earl is explaining the nuances of Greg’s social awkwardness in a fantastically delivered deadpan while Greg sits off to the side, starting at the panda-and pig-costumed hallucinations of his accidentally-stoned mind. The scene is ridiculous, hilarious, and poignant, nicely setting the tone for the rest of the film as it becomes more serious.
And it does get serious, somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the film, with a standout scene that shows more of old Marty’s influence. Up until this point, the camera has been kinetic and full of life, flitting subjectively through spaces to guide us through Greg’s thoughts and experiences. It is impossible not to notice when the camera, and Greg’s life, seem to come to a full stop during a long take in Rachel’s bedroom that lasts at least five solid minutes (I’m guessing; it felt at least twice that long). I can’t say much more without dropping some rude spoilers, but suffice it to say, the scenes marks a huge narrative turning point that is reflected in the formal style. For the rest of the film, the camera becomes much more stoic and moves with less frivolity and whimsy, matching the heavier tone of the story as it progresses.
Often when a movie is described as “film school-y” it is not meant as a compliment. There are very few films that can pull off the combination of quirky, self-referential narrative and stylistic aspects that phrase brings to mind without teetering into eye-roll-inducing cliché, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those films. There are constant cinematic references knitted into the fabric of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl through Greg and Earl’s films, which become a crucial part of the film’s narrative and characterizations rather than bogging them down clumsily through random name-dropping.
Another great point of note in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the brilliance of casting. Nick Offerman shines as Greg’s father, a bizarre, tenured sociologist with a penchant for foreign snack foods and no friends but his Siamese cat. His weird yet eloquent ramblings and small tidbits of advice seem as if they were written distinctly with Offerman in mind. Molly Shannon is also phenomenal as Rachel’s loving, booze-soaked mother, a character as deeply funny as she is tragic without the combination feeling mean. Earl and Greg are fantastic as well, Earl giving Greg the real talk he so often needs to hear; their friendship again could have ventured into cliché, but Earl especially is just so likeable it works. Olivia Cooke is lovely as Rachel, straying away from the detestable manic pixie dream girl that so often plagues indie movies.
The genuine heart of these characters, and of the story, come together in one of the most thoughtfully constructed films I’ve seen in a long time. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl proves unequivocally that despite his time on Glee, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is no purveyor of cutesy high school fairy-tales; he is a true architect of honest emotion.
Equally well versed in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Black Album, Caroline is a Virginia-bred writer/filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is strongly opinionated about French fry variations, Ciara, underrated animals (lemurs, goats), and gender issues. Her personal essays can be found on her website and Femsplain; her shorter and more belligerent musings can be found on Twitter @CPConrad