Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Jesse Andrews

Seeing the trailer for the film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I couldn’t help but dread something like Wes Anderson directing The Fault in Our Stars. That sentence may seem negative towards the two parties involved, but I actually liked The Fault in Our Stars to some extent and have found at least some intermittent enjoyment from Wes Anderson’s filmography (some of his films are better than others). The problem is the mixing of the two, the mixing of the heavy subject of a girl dying of cancer and the type of comedic quirk that has come in vogue with the success of Anderson. Instead, what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ends up becoming is an original voice telling an unconventional tale that manages to be funny, heartfelt, and at times very raw.

Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a high school senior, has been diagnosed with leukemia, but this isn’t really her story. This is Greg’s story. Played by Thomas Mann, Greg has spent his high school career avoiding confrontation and groupings, instead managing to just nice enough to everyone to stay out of trouble. This strategy is most evident in his friendship with Earl (RJ Cyler), whom Greg calls his “co-worker” to avoid too meaningful a label between the two. In Greg’s defense, they are co-workers, making amateur film adaptations of classic films by changing the titles ever so slightly. Forced by his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to befriend Rachel, Greg’s strategy begins to be broken-down as he finds true friendship in Rachel. But Greg’s constitution is tested when Rachel’s disease begins to become all too real for Greg.

This film is not one that doesn’t have its faults. For one, it certainly seems all too proud of how educated Greg seems to be of cinema. With all the references to classic films, the characters perusing a used dvd store that seems to only include the Criterion collection posters and discs already all too apparent in Greg’s room/house, we get it. They know movies. Admittedly, the film also is a little too quirky for it’s own good. But once you get over the constructed moments of quirk, there are plenty more moments of such subtle truth and rawness that are more than enough for the story of Greg, Earl and Rachel to pull at the heartstrings and feel all too real. In many ways, it’s the film’s ability to overcome its need to standout that makes it standout to me.

Instead of alling into some kind of indie quirk trap that values the different and weird over actual powerful narrative moments, Gomez-Rejon and writer Jesse Andrews are able to infuse the film with genuine characters, feelings and moments. I think having Jesse Andrews adapt his own novel was a smart decision, and I wonder what his vision behind the camera would have added to the film, a la what Stephen Chbosky did with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The comparison may be apt, as Greg struggles to find a place to fit in, just as Charlie did in Perks. His friendship with Rachel becomes a journey and truly eye-opening experience, showing Greg what it means to really live. It may not seem as deep as that on the surface, but Greg is a young man afraid of his future. Seeing Rachel in her state helps him realize his ability to influence his future.

Having won the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, I shouldn’t be surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience of this film, but I was. I think much of that surprise is how it managed to grow on me, proving to me that it could overcome those things I found off-putting to become a genuinely emotional tale. Olivia Cooke is great as Rachel, pulling the right emotions out at the right times. Mann, too, was good. But I think RJ Cyler was the real standout from the cast, taking full advantage of his big moments on screen. His is the performance that best embodies the film’s ability to come out of its quirk with the right amount of kick to make the audience realize what is happening, not just to Rachel as she battles leukemia, but to Greg as he begins to realize that life isn’t all about what the movies show us, ironically enough.

***1/2 – Great

 

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