With a title as Sundancy as ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, it is no surprise the film was the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m sure this will be labeled as ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ for the Criterion crowd (there are some Wes Anderson influences and more than a couple references to Werner Herzog).
The terrific screenplay (by Jesse Andrews adapting his own novel), assured direction from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (his second feature), outstanding cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung, the perfect musical score by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly, and uniformly excellent performances make ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ a wonderfully energetic teen weepie – one that avoids most of the clichés of this genre while infusing the remaining ones with warmth and humor.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward high school senior who tells us this story with sharp perspicacity. His only friend is a kid named Earl (RJ Cyler), who he refers to as more of a coworker given that they work on elaborate parodies of classic films together. Greg’s eccentric father (Nick Offerman) is a humanities professor who appears to spend all his time working on a unique culinary creation – he introduced Greg to Werner Herzog at a young age, the auteur that sparked his passion for cinema. And so, here are some example of the films Greg and Earl make: ‘A Clockwork Orange’ becomes a ‘A Sock Work Orange’, Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’ becomes ‘Breathe Less’ and they are packaged into fake Criterion covers. It’s a perfectly suitable hobby for someone who wants to fortify himself from the social scene, which is exactly what Greg and Earl do – they spend their lunch break in their history teacher’s (John Bernthal) office.
Greg is persuaded by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend a sweet-natured but unpopular girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. And so this beautiful friendship begins, which the film’s subtitling of events labels as “the doomed friendship”. Just when we’re starting to think that this may play out like a variation of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, Greg is there to remind us that this is not a touching, romantic story. This relationship unfolds in ways you would not expect.
The very best pictures of this genre feature the confident storytelling and outstanding performances that we get here but what really distinguishes ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is how exceptionally well made it is. Chung’s low-angle shots, tracking shots, long takes, stop frame interregnums, and use of foreground and background compositions are a just a few examples of the visual intricacies employed. There is a pivotal moment between Greg and Rachel framed with her in the foreground and he in the background rather than the shot/countershot we would typically expect and Chung’s approach amplifies the emotional intensity. Eno’s and Muhly’s score is devastatingly effective; they discard the all-too-familiar sweeping strings for something more powerful – their score is a big reason the final act is such a punch to the gut.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ may transition from madcap comedy to tearjerker drama a little too abruptly but I believe this shift is inherent of the film’s design. This story is told from Greg’s perspective and the film’s light tone is maintained for as long as Greg remains in denial. Yes, this is movie is about that doomed friendship between Greg and Rachel. But, it’s also about the artistic temperament. Greg’s fake movies are intentionally horrible mainly because he didn’t have that powerful immediate human experience to share. Until now. Great art springs from adversity and he now has the stage to say something deeply personal.
Most importantly, it all feels organic. Films of this sort are far too obvious in manipulating our emotions. Greg, Earl, and Rachel look, feel, and speak like teenagers. We hear the ums and ahs. They sometimes say the wrong things and appear incoherent. You can’t smell the screenplay workshopping. We feel their frustrations because we were once as confused as they were. Even the quirkiest characters register as real people. It’s clear that Andrews and Gomez-Rejon love these characters. We enjoy spending time in their company, and we care for them deeply. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is no disease-of-the-week flick pick. It is clever, honest, and artfully assembled. The tears it leaves you in feel earned. QED.