Where to begin? It’s a question Greg (Thomas Mann) asks himself at the start of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He’s trying to write the story of his senior year in high school—the year he spent with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate diagnosed with leukemia. It’s a question I’m asking myself now too, as I try to fit everything I loved about this fun and heartfelt film into one review. Like Greg, I guess I’ll just start.
Greg describes himself as a groundhog-faced, insufferably awkward social chameleon. He can blend in with any of the cliques that populate his school, but he chooses to belong to none (he’s trying to save himself from that aforementioned awkwardness and escape high school without suffering too many embarrassments). His only real friend is Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler), though Greg would never acknowledge him as such. Greg and Earl are filmmakers—and merely “co-workers,” according to Greg—who spend most of their free time making parodies of classic films like Apocalypse Now, The Third Man and Citizen Kane. (The titles and brief clips of Greg and Earl’s hilarious parodies are a highlight.)
Greg is content to have the most limited of high school experiences and just make his movies until he has to face the looming threat of college. But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with Rachel, he has to abandon his casual-interactions-only policy and actually spend meaningful time with someone other than a “colleague.” So begins what Greg dubs his “doomed friendship” with Rachel.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg and Rachel as they help each other cope. Greg helps Rachel deal with all the pity, anger and exhaustion that come with having cancer, and Rachel helps Greg deal with his fear of connection. Along the way, Greg and Earl are coaxed into creating a film for Rachel—a project that both terrifies and consumes Greg.
The film begins at a rapid pace, quickly establishing the characters so it can delve into their stories. While it feels a bit frantic at first, and the characters lean more toward caricatures, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon soon finds his rhythm. Once Greg and Rachel are thrown together, the film slows down and the characters relax.
Rachel and Greg’s profound friendship develops out of the clumsy manner in which he deals with her diagnosis. And he doesn’t get better at dealing with it throughout the film. This is the real charm of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. While the plot could be confused with that of a Nicholas Sparks film, nothing about this story feels inauthentic or cloying. Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews don’t attack you with sad. There’s no melodramatic music and the characters don’t recite life-affirming maxims (and if they do, they’re mocked). No one really knows how to handle cancer—no one knows the correct thing to say. We’re all just stumbling about, hoping to be even a little bit helpful. The film gets this exactly right, and it’s refreshing when compared to recent teen-with-a-terminal-illness romances.
Much credit is due the cast, and those who assembled it. For Greg, the filmmakers needed an actor who could play funny and sweet, awkward and relatable, and self-loathing but never tiresome. Mann handles all of this with ease. And Cooke (a Rose Byrne doppelgänger) can convey incredible sadness with a shoulder shrug, or giddy excitement with a widened eye. She’s a real surprise, and fascinating to watch. Then there’s RJ Cyler, who delivers some of the film’s most memorable moments. The supporting cast, including Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman and Britton, shine too.
I could go on. But all things must come to an end—and speaking of endings, that’s another thing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl nails. It’s much more satisfying than this conclusion, I assure you.
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Writer: Jesse Andrews
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman
Release Date: June 12, 2015