It was just about a year ago that I reviewed the film, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I called it an honest and real portrait of two young adults who are dealing with life and death in the aftermath of their respective cancers. (If you haven’t seen it yet, I would encourage you to do so.) It would be very easy to say that ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is another film about teenage cancer. Yes, there are similarities but this film so much more than that.
“Me” is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). He and Earl (R.J. Cyler) are high school seniors who are your average American teenagers. The “Dying Girl” is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate of theirs who has leukemia. When Rachel is diagnosed with the disease, Greg’s well-intentioned mother (Connie Britton; TV’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) asks Greg to call on her at home. While Greg would prefer to go through adolescence being invisible, he’s a good kid under all his self-loathing and he decides to do the right thing. Their first encounter seems like a page torn out of most teenagers’ lives. As he tells Rachel, he’s not there because he wants to be there. He’s there because his mother asked him to go. Needless to say, the news doesn’t cheer Rachel up any but Greg quickly sees that she’s as offbeat as he is. He stays that afternoon and keeps coming back.
Although Rachel and Greg already knew each other, they weren’t exactly friends as Greg doesn’t like getting close to anyone. His strategy is to float through high school by being on a cordial but detached basis with all the groups and cliques that function there. Even Earl, who truly is Greg’s one close friend, is referred to by Greg as his “co-worker” because the two guys share a wonderful, yet secret, hobby. They take classic Hollywood and arthouse films from the 1970s, tweak the titles and shoot a whole new film based on the new title. It makes for some hilarious homages such as MY DINNER WITH ANDRE THE GIANT; BREW VELVET; A BOX OF ‘LIPS, WOW! (say the title fast); and A SOCKWORK ORANGE, clips of which can be seen during the film.
Over the weeks ahead, Greg and Rachel strike up a platonic friendship. One might expect them to take their relationship further but it’s not that kind of story, as Greg says in a voiceover. Instead, they just hang out together as Rachel’s health is increasingly affected by her chemotherapy treatments and the disease. When Greg’s long-time crush discovers his hobby, she challenges him to make a tribute film for Rachel. However, by his own admission, he and Earl only know how to make terrible parodies and the guys struggle to make an original and worthy film for someone they care about.
Much like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is a welcome change from the usual young adult-oriented fare coming out of Hollywood these days. These are real teenagers with real issues – no super-powered, supernatural, high-tech geniuses to be seen. The film is funny in parts but it doesn’t let you forget that this really is a story about growing up. It’s sad in parts, too, but it’s not a tearjerker. And many of the characters are quirky but their behaviours are well within the bounds of reality. A case in point is Rachel’s mother, Denise (Molly Shannon, TV’s SNL), who would have been a cougar had her daughter not become ill. While we expect her to pounce on Greg during any one of his visits to her home, she finds comfort in another glass of white wine instead.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is a bittersweet tale about friendship and what can happen when you open yourself up to someone. As Greg learns, it can be painful at times but it’s hopefully worth it in the long run.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL was directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and was based on the debut novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay. It was the surprise hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film was shot and set in Andrews’ hometown of Pittsburgh. His own house was used as Greg’s house, and the kids’ high school is the same one that Andrews attended.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:30.)
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