Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

Still from the movie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Having missed the only showing of this film at the San Francisco International Film Festival recently, I jumped at the chance to attend an advanced screening on Monday. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the toast of Sundance this year, winning both Grand Jury and Audience awards. I had mentioned in a previous post that, though it sounded like a quirkier, funnier The Fault in Our Stars, I was still pretty sure it was going to be the kind of movie I would love.

The “me” in the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who has spent his entire school career trying to be invisible. Friendly with everyone but friends with no one, Greg nurses his low self-esteem with awkward, self-deprecating humor, which he reveals only to those closest to him–his mother (Connie Britton, of Friday Night Lights fame), his father (Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman), and his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler). Everyone else is treated with a bland, casual cheerfulness perfectly calibrated for the quick in-and-out interaction. But when Greg’s mother forces him to spend time with his neighbor Rachel (Olivia Cooke, bearing a faint resemblance to Rachel Leigh Cook), the “dying girl,” Greg’s awkwardness and social fear is painfully (and sometimes hilariously) exposed.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is and is not the movie I expected it to be. It tries very hard not to be typical, which I had hoped for and which I appreciate. There is no love story where you’d usually expect one. For a film about a girl with terminal cancer, there’s surprisingly little existential angst. I am grateful that it consistently cuts the sentimental crap, summoning all the withering scorn of adolescence. It makes a tremendous effort to be funny, and, after the first few cringe-worthily awkward jokes, it mostly succeeds (or maybe I was just won over by Greg’s endearing humility and vulnerability).

On the other hand, its imperfections are a little hard to miss. For one, the film’s humor is of the “trying too hard” variety. Those not familiar with old film classics will miss many of the referential jokes, though my fellow San Francisco audience members roared appreciatively at them all (Greg and Earl specialize in making mock versions of cinema’s most revered titles, e.g. A Sockwork Orange or A Box of ‘Lips Wow). The other rather uncomfortable flaw is the film’s rendering of the character Earl. If Greg’s African American sidekick provides comic relief, it’s mostly as a stereotype. He shouts “titties” whenever a hot girl is mentioned; he smokes cigarettes; he lives on the “bad” side of town; he, of course, knows how to fight; he has the no-nonsense, cut-the-bullshit attitude of the street. And, improbably, he and Greg are each other’s only friends. Don’t get me wrong–despite all of that, I like Earl–but he is the least real of the three titular characters. (Though maybe that’s just the role of BFFs in comedies.) Finally: I know this is a nitpick, but the ending rings just a little bit false. I can’t think of a way to explain what I mean without introducing a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the false bit is not an important part of the film, but I see this kind of falseness in movies all the time–making a character seem more special by giving him/her a random, heretofore irrelevant talent.

It’s a testament to the film’s striking personality that, despite all my gripes, I actually liked it very much. I like it the way I like a slightly annoying, persistent friend who is tragically aware of his misfit qualities but who can’t help being himself in a way that is so rare and brave that you end up quite fond and defensive of him. Or am I just describing how I feel about Greg? It’s hard to separate the two. Anyway, watch the movie and see if you don’t end up feeling the way I do.