“This is the story of my senior year of high school,” offers Greg (Thomas Mann). “How I almost destroyed my life and made a film so bad it literally killed someone.” By this he means he’s narrating his story, indicated by its title, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s cute that this title gestures toward his high schoolishly incorrect grammar, and perhaps more pointedly, in its also cute rhymes, the individuals who will help him to emerge at the end of this year as the storyteller he imagines himself to be at its start.
The title is cute and a little preemptive too, in that it lets you know right away that the makers — and maybe even narrator Greg — have some sense of the conventions in play, the white boy who will be made better by his associations with others, specifically, a black classmate, Earl (RJ Cyler) and a dying classmate, who does have a name too, Rachel (Olivia Cooke). It’s not a terrible or new thing to note such conventions and then go on to challenge or make fun of them, improve on them or do pretty much anything other than note them. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl notes.
And so: Greg’s year begins as he’s contemplating college, or more precisely, contemplating submitting college applications, per requests made by his mother (Connie Britton). College may be a way to do what he wants, which is to make movies, but Greg is unconvinced that it’s the only or even the most effective way. And so he resists, in manners you might expect, procrastinating, retreating, seeking distractions. And then his mother finds one for him, a friend’s daughter diagnosed with leukemia. This not being quite the distraction he was seeking Greg resists, until he doesn’t, because, he tells Rachel, his mom is “the LeBron James of nagging,” and also because, well, his film’s title.
Predictably fraught in its first moments, the Greg and Rachel relationship is salvaged when they’re not together, that is, when he and Earl are making movies. His reason — which no one quite says out loud — is that the movie he’s making especially for her will keep her alive, as she waits for his perfect product. In the meantime, he allows her to see the trove already made, which means you get to see little bits as well.
You’re glad for these bits, themselves bits of the boys’ mini-remakes, with titles like “Box Lips Now”, “Breathe Less”, and “A Sockwork Orange”, because they’re clever and knowing. You might wonder how, in all of their movie-watching, Greg and Earl managed to miss seeing the one movie the movie that they’re in most closely plagiarizes, Be Kind Rewind, the one where Mos Def and Jack Black make movies to save a neighborhood, and oh yes, remind you why you love movies. Earl and Greg’s movie doesn’t have that in mind. As lovely as Earl and Greg’s mini-movies can be, they’re distractions, efforts to deflect attention from its frankly sentimental center.
These efforts too often feel like efforts, as if Me and Earl and the Dying Girl knows the dying girl story is unbearably sentimental, even as a conventional life lesson for a white boy. And so the kids are witty, their scripted exchanges witty and rhythmic, their observations pointed. They’re also, occasionally, kids, which means they’re not inclined to deal well with the most difficult experiences, say, Greg’s not quite intentional cruelty to Earl, followed by a make-up fight in Earl’s yard, a scene that shows Earl in a space that’s not Greg’s or institutional. Here you might be inclined to wonder what other movie might have emerged, one starting in Earl’s bedroom or in front of his computer.
But then you’re getting ahead of yourself, and you remind yourself that this is Greg’s movie. And his inability to be inside Earl’s house or to know anything about chemo except by way of Rachel’s allusion and her bald head. You know that Rachel’s chemo is off screen because this is not her movie, but her narrator’s. And his movie is self-centered, as its title signals. In this, at least, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl poses a good question regarding how and why movies do their work. Nowadays, when cell phones and the internet make visual content by everyone available to everyone, what makes movies special can seem lost.
Yet once, in an era evoked by the projector Greg uses to show his work, movies had to do with screens and viewers and even groups of viewers. Now, you might not think to ask whether movies need to be seen in order to be movies. Now, you might assume someone sees all uploads somewhere, and also that numbers of views, so measurable, matter more than quality or other sorts of effects, so immeasurable.
Audience might still matter though. Earl and Greg make their movies for each other, and when they expand their audience, letting Rachel inside, the framework for their jokes, their references, their bond, changes inalterably. Watching Rachel watch, Earl and even Greg might have seen themselves differently. But you don’t quite see that in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.