Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s latest film walks a delicate tightrope of emotions. Based on the novel by Jesse Andrew’s, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that wants to be both an eccentric comedy that will delight disciples of cinema and a universal coming-of-age tale. Though it wraps itself within the comforting confines of the former, it is only when unwrapping the deliberately quirky packaging that the film’s surprisingly touching commentary on friendship begins to shine through.
As it often the case with Sundance Audience Award-winning films it requires a leap of faith to buy into the film’s premise. Like many students, Greg (Thomas Mann) is trying to survive the cliquey nature of the high school system. He masks his low-self esteem and general insecurities by making friends, or at least loose associations, with every group and individual oddball who exists within the walls of his school. Taking an approach in which he blends in with everyone, but is never really seen by anyone, Greg has managed to navigate his high school years by simply uttering a series of faux-caring statements tailored for each individual.
The only person Greg seems to truly have a connection with, though he is reluctant to admit it, is Earl (RJ Cyler), a boy who grew up in the poorer part of town but shares the same passion for cinema. Referring to Earl as his “co-worker”, the pair eat lunch together in their history teacher’s, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), office and spend their free time making homemade versions of movies they love. When word spreads that a fellow student, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with cancer, Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) is insistent that he spend time with the ailing girl. Though he agrees to avoid his mother’s persistent nagging, Greg eventually finds that his growing bond with Rachel is impacting his life in ways that he never imagined.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a complete about-face from Gomez-Rejon’s previous film, the horror reboot/homage The Town that Dreaded Sundown. While he displayed stylistic flourishes in that film, here he takes full advantage of the canvas in which he paints his vibrant picture. Some of the film’s most invigorating and creative moments comes when Greg and Earl are making their parodies of classic works of cinema (e.g. “A Sockwork Orange” instead of A Clockwork Orange, “2:48 PM Cowboy” instead of Midnight Cowboy, etc). Proudly wearing its love of cinema on its sleeve like a badge of honour – Thomas Mann delivers a hilarious Werner Herzog impression – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not afraid to show its influences. In fact, when Mr. McCarthy routinely utters his mantra of “Respect the Research” to his pupils, it can be argued that Gomez-Rejon is trying to instill the same values on the audience. He not only includes clips from films such as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but also has their posters adorn Greg’s walls like a map guiding us through a cinematic museum.
While its passion for film’s rich history is infectious, what keeps Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from sailing into the turbulent seas of merely being a clone of Wes Anderson’s quirky brand of comedy is its heart. The film is most effect when the eccentricities are stripped away and the characters are forced to take an honest look at their situations. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an effective reminder that life is short and unpredictable. As a result, we should be embracing and cherishing the bonds of friendship, no matter how brief, that we form with others. It is these bonds that not only help to shape us as individuals, but foster a sense of creativity that makes life worth living.
Filled with wonderful performances – the three young leads are note perfect – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl soars because its humour is balanced with genuine emotion. It is a delightful film that will make audiences laugh and cry while reminding us to appreciate those whose presence have made our lives so much richer.