At first glance, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seems to be cut from the same cloth of nauseatingly quirky indie fabric as films like Juno and 500 Shades of Summer. Thankfully, it’s not necessarily the case, although it doesn’t mean that the film can get off without a fair share of criticism directed towards its story. To move past that, though, is to watch a film that is cleverly made and emotionally honest while still being trapped by the clichés of its genre.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl concerns itself with Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, self-loathing high school student who divides his time between making art-film parodies with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) and dodging commitment to everyone and everything around him. It’s only when he’s forced to hang out with a classmate who has leukemia, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), that his carefully constructed just-good-enough life starts falling apart. Naturally, this experience is fraught with emotional self-discovery, angst, and learning interspersed with snippets of the parodies shot by Greg and Earl.
As with any coming-of-age film, relatability is of the utmost importance. A key to a successful story is the kind of emotional truthfulness that the film does well. The comedic moments are offset by the very real and very painful moments that define late adolescence and transitory periods. Moments of conflict, like when Greg blames Rachel for ‘giving up’ are perfectly imperfect, basking in an emotional immaturity that is painful to watch, yet relatable. Greg is a perfectly fleshed out character with a lot of honesty behind him, and this is where the film hits a snag.
For all its stylistic inventiveness and moments of genuine, painful, teen angst, it seems as if we’re watching the wrong story. The journey of Greg’s self discovery is all well and good, but watching Greg seems a great deal less interesting than the stories of the other two characters in the title. For all the effort put into making Greg real, neither Earl nor Rachel are given the same care. The unfortunate consequence of this choice is that Earl ends up as a token black kid, ready to dish out wisdom, and Rachel is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose sole purpose is to give meaning to Greg’s life by dying. It’s a common trope, and for the rest of the film’s tender treatment of the difficulty of managing difficult emotions as a teenager, it seems a weak and cliché turn to take.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize the film too harshly. After all, it’s the story of a boy whose self-centeredness and insecurity cause him to shut out those around him, so it’s fitting that his narrative doesn’t include the other two characters. It’s also true that, for all of its moments of genuine heartbreak, the film is really good at being funny without being ingratiating. The adult characters are exceptionally funny, especially Greg’s weird-food-eating, cat-loving father (Nick Offerman).
Also of note is the film’s playful and inventive visual style. It’s bright and youthful, with a liberal use of inventive camera angles and movement. A sequence in which Earl and Greg accidentally eat food with marijuana in it is excellent comedy, made even better with Chung-hoon Chung’s camera and David Trachtenberg’s editing. The film moves at a quick pace, effortlessly transitioning between scenes, and feels cohesive and fun throughout.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a good film. It’s disappointing that it falls prey to clichés, but that doesn’t end up detracting much from the overall experience. It’s a film deserving of more appreciation because it manages to honestly connect to the viewer in a way a lot of films have trouble doing. Great performances and technical skill help to bring the story to life, and it ends up being funny, sad, and everything in between, hitting its intended beats effortlessly.
The Blu-Ray out now from Fox boasts excellent picture and sound quality along with a smattering of carefully chosen and delightful extras. There’s the prerequisite behind-the-scenes documentary, along with a commentary track, trailers, and a listing of all of the parodies shot by Greg and Earl. It’s a refreshingly varied selection of bonuses that really help to flesh out the film and the process behind it.