If you were to judge Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – one of the favorites from this year’s Sundance Film Festival – based on first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be either a “girl with cancer” movie á la The Fault in Our Stars or a quirky, wannabe Wes Anderson flick, or perhaps a combination of the two. What you may not expect is a creative, idiosyncratic film that balances laughs and heartfelt emotion – and that’s exactly what this film is.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is an awkward high school senior who wants to be on good terms with everybody but not make friends with any of them. Though Earl (R.J. Cyler) certainly qualifies as a friend, Greg refers to him as a co-worker, despite the fact that they’ve been making punny, short parodies of foreign and renowned films since childhood. Greg believes that life is playing by his rules, but it throws a curveball at him in the form of Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class who is diagnosed with cancer. After his mom pushes him into spending time with her, the two of them strike up a friendship that forces Greg to reevaluate his perspectives.
The film does a remarkable job at unfolding the story through Greg’s perspective. Everything we see on screen is seen through his eyes from beginning to end, and in that, we see what story the film is telling. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t about Greg and Earl’s efforts to make a film for Rachel, nor is it about Rachel’s struggle to deal with her cancer; it’s ultimately about Greg maturing, both emotionally and philosophically. His tale isn’t always believable – a conflict he has with one of his classmates is never resolved, and his father (Nick Offerman) is too kooky – and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon overloads the quirk meter early on, but once the film settles down, it confidently yet subtly hits its emotional beats and becomes thoroughly engaging as a result. The film never strays into hilarity or melodrama because it knows that it doesn’t have to, and that’s so refreshing.
Characters matter tremendously in films like this one, and the cast play a significant role in making it so affecting. Mann comfortably inhabits misfit Greg and effortlessly brings out not just the character’s charm, but also the qualities that can make him unlikable at times. Now, given that this is Greg’s story through and through, the other characters aren’t as fully fleshed out as they could be, but almost all of them prove to be quite empathetic and endearing, thanks to the actors and actresses playing them. The standout performer here is Cooke, whose body language is so expressive that she requires no words to communicates the weight of Rachel’s condition. She shares such terrific chemistry with Mann, and it’s no surprise that the film’s best scene is a single take showcasing these two, in which their emotions just go at each other. Cyler steals the scenes he’s in, and Molly Shannon is amusing and heartbreaking as Rachel’s mom.
In the wrong hands, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl simply wouldn’t work, so the fact that it does work quite marvelously in the hands of Gomez-Rejon, screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who adapted his own novel), and a terrific cast really is a testament to their abilities. It’s easy to be reminded of other films with similar subject matter and style, but in the end, those other films won’t be part of the conversation any longer because this one stands well on its own.
* Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures