Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

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2014 was the year where I came face to face with mortality, and the depressing crap pile that was my life at the time just had more crap dumped onto it. Just as the year kicked off, I was met with the death of my grandfather, an old high school mate, and my cat of 14 years. Strangely enough, the death that hurt the most was the cat. Not to say that I wasn’t hurt by the other losses, but that one was the loss that seemed to affect day to day life the most. The sound of a cat coming down to greet me, vocally protesting that I left her at all in the first place, was absent. My room was eerily quiet and there was no longer a warmth on my legs every night. And isn’t that why we grieve for death? We grieve for our own personal loss and the empty space left behind.

This is what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl explores. Greg (Thomas Mann), the ‘me’ in the title, prides himself in his lack of human connection as he drifts through high school, where he feels he could never fit in. He drifts through, keeping on good terms with everyone, actually befriending no one. Except Earl (RJ Cyler), who he’s known since they were kids. They have worked together making low-budget films based off of pre-existing movies, with slightly altered names. For example, Rosemary Baby Carrots and Senior Citizen Kane. Actually, in a lot of ways Greg reminds me of myself at that age. I also avoided classification in high school for the most part, and got recognition and acceptance from many of the groups of kids… at least in the later years. First few years were a bit more rough. I also nurtured my love for film during this time so there is another curious parallel. Anyway, Greg won’t even admit that Earl is his friend because he can’t really commit to the word friend. He considers them co-workers, which is fine. Earl knows what’s up.

The aforementioned ‘dying girl’ is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with Leukaemia. Greg barely knows her, but his mom knows her mom, so one phone call leads to another, and he finds himself being sent to talk and hang out with Rachel. Kind of awkward, but apparently forced friendships can take off too, because they do warm up to one another because she doesn’t want pity and he doesn’t particularly want to give it.

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Strangely enough, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seems like the perfect title for this movie. The playfulness of the rhyme and rhythm play counter to the subject of death, yet it doesn’t hide it. Similarly, the movie feels like a light indie comedy and it mostly is, except for the whole Leukaemia story, which y’know, leads to some heavy drama. It has all the makings of a great high school comedy, with some colourful characters including a rough around the edges teacher (Jon Bernthal), Greg’s eccentric parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton), and a girl with cancer… hmm… I guess that’s the point there. Cancer throws a wrench into an otherwise lovely set up, as it does in real life. Then suddenly shit gets real. This is more or less what Greg is going through during the movie; his status quo, which he is so proud of, is being severely shaken.

He’s not particularly well grounded. I mean, he’s in high school so one can only be so grounded in the microcosm of school politics, but his lack of perspective is just a reflection of where’s he’s at in life, and the fact that he’s a middle class white American. But he is the voice of someone who hasn’t met death head to head before. I believe that a firm grounding and larger perspective comes from hardships in life. This is where Earl comes in. He is the yin to Greg’s yang. They come from different neighbourhoods and, as such, different walks of life. It’s not explored thoroughly, but you figure out pretty fast that Earl’s life has been a rougher ride and it’s only through their shared love of film that he and Greg connected. Earl grounds the viewer and offers a voice of reason. Greg laments about how Rachel’s condition is affecting him as his decided lack of social life, often not considering what she is actually going through. Earl calls him out on it because the permanence of death isn’t as foreign a concept to him.

But that’s how we relate to death, is it not? Until we face it personally, all we have is ourselves as a reference point. How can Greg understand life any differently if, up until this point, everything has just kind of worked out?

Curiously, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has a background in horror film making, with The Town That Dreaded Sundown and episodes of American Horror Story behind his belt. This looks to me his break into comedy and drama which ¬†seem to fit his strengths better. Not that I’ve even actually seen his other work, but he grasps emotional gravitas and shows he’s adept as getting the performances he needs from inexperienced actors.¬† The performances are often fairly restrained, which is what the film calls for most of the time. Most of the young actors have an understandably short resume, but they rise to the occasion when need be. The best performance from the bunch does come from Olivia Cooke, who also did a great job adopting an American accent. I would have never guessed that she was from Manchester. As Rachel, she just had more opportunity to shine as she struggles with the emotional landscape of a dying adolescent. Also of note was RJ Cyler, this being his first major acting credit. His Earl was quick and funny, but felt real. It at no point felt like he was an actor. Sometimes you can get something very visceral and true from less experienced talent, and I think that rings true for most of this picture.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is proving to be one of the indie sensations of the year and understandably so. It brings us face to face with both our youth and our mortality, which is a bizarre duality. Should we laugh or should we cry? Isn’t there a fine line between comedy and tragedy? For Shakespeare, the difference is in the ending; whether or not the finale is a wedding or a funeral. I don’t think it’s as clear cut in this film, but perhaps that just means this is more realistic. From my experience, in life, tragedy and comedy are intricately bound together.

4 Stars

-DF