Nutshell: there’s a reason why Me & Earl is scooping up awards; it’s a touching but not sappy look at youth, illness and the bonds of friendship. Come for the cool way director Gomez-Rejon imagines the story, stay for the top-notch performances. Plus Nick Offerman as a hippie dad is priceless. Grade: A
Can something be strange, refreshing and a gut punch at the same time? Because this is it folks. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I’ll shorten to Me & Earl because I’m incredibly lazy) takes a young girl’s Stage 4 diagnosis and instead of making that the story of the film, ties it into friendship, family, and yes, growing up.
Greg (Thomas Mann) has prided himself on spending the last 8 years being socially invisible. By maintaining a casual, distant acquaintanceship with everyone in school, he’s been able to avoid the pitfalls of high school feuds. He’s also avoided real connections with other people. The only person he’s spent any time with is his “coworker” Earl (RJ Cyler), a kid with an eye for film-making and a penchant for riffing on the classics. For example: Rashomon = MonoRash. There’s also Pooping Tom, The 2:48pm Cowboy, A Sockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Butt, and so many others that if there was ever a marathon of these films, I’d pay to see ’em. And yes, this film is film nerd’s heaven. Greg and Earl are the kind of kids — talent-wise at least — that we all wish we’d been as teenagers. As opposed to simply sitting in the second bedroom re-watching The Seventh Seal. (Just me?)
So about the Dying Girl. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has stage 4 “cancer of the thing” (aka acute myelogenous leukemia.) Greg’s mom strong-arms him into visiting “his friend Rachel”, and a “doomed friendship” begins. Greg finds himself genuinely enjoying her company, Earl keeps asking if Greg’s “gone play with them titties”, and Rachel lives her life as best as she can while going through the hell that is chemo. Cooke does an excellent job of portraying someone with a horrible illness; she manages to go through the range of emotions — from living life to the fullest, to “just leave already” agony — and it feels genuine. And that’s all too rare when movies deal with terminal or chronic illness.
Me & Earl doesn’t put on a happy face, nor does it play for the weepies. Still, I found myself laughing and weeping anyhow. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter/novelist Jesse Andrews keep this film from dragging itself down from its own heaviness by injecting bits of 4th-wall levity; the film is broken down into “chapters” that are outlined by point-blank text, like “The Part After All The Other Parts“. And there are great claymation bits that reference Greg’s thoughts on pretty girls and “groundhog faced” boys. These random bits of levity — not to mention scenes when Greg’s parents and/or Rachel’s mom try to connect with the teens — keep things from being one long downward spiral to Love Story-land. (And Me & Earl isn’t a love story. This is a friendship story. Just so you know.) Gomez-Rejon’s camerawork is fantastic, complete with tilts, POVs and sequence shots. I’d expect nothing less from a film that immediately references Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
BTW, Greg has the coolest parents in the film universe; Connie Britton and Nick Offerman. Britton plays a “get in touch with your emotions” take-charge mom not too far removed from her Friday Night Lights character. On the other hand, Offerman sheds his Ron Swanson personal completely, as a tenured, IDGAF sociology professor that spends all his time in a robe, eating strange-to-us foreign delicacies that always end up as part of Greg’s lunch. (I’m not sure if Greg’s dad actually ever goes to class. Ever.) As usual, Offerman’s deadpan works perfectly, and is a great foil to Mann’s spluttering teen. Rachel’s mom ain’t no slouch either; she’s Molly Shannon, all drunken pain and bonhomie. Shout-out to my favorite The Walking Dead d-bag, Shane; Jon Bernthal plays super-cool teacher Mr. McCarthy, complete with a crockpot full of pho and a “respect the research” neck tattoo. Bernthal nails the teacher that makes high school kids want to become teachers.
One thing kept bouncing around in my head after a day or so; why didn’t Greg simply go to the college where his dad has a tenured position? Usually tuition is free if you’re a family member, and I’m sure admission would be a snap. A small quibble, but they never do address that…
Yes, I know that tons of folks love The Fault In Our Stars. And it’s a good flick. But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is better. If Fault is the 21st Century’s Love Story, then Me & Earl is its…well, Me & Earl is its own thing. A self-aware film that doesn’t try to beat you senseless with its own awesomeness. A film that nails what it’s like to try to grow up unscathed. A film that tries to lay out the heartbreak of illness but doesn’t leave you curled in the fetal at the end.
P.S.: that voice you hear coming from Rachel’s Hugh Jackman picture early in the film? None other than Hugh Jackman himself. And he’s a hoot.