When Everything Feels Like the Movies

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Alejandro Gomez-Rejon, Writ. Jesse Andrews
Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal
Olivia Cooke as Rachel and Thomas Mann as Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Photo by Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Back to back summer cancer movies? Is this a trend? Teen movies sometimes get a bad rap, like when they tackle mortality with hipster coyness in the maudlin mush of, say, The Fault in Our Stars, but here comes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a perfect remedy to the benign tumor of Stars. Beyond the simplified plot element of “boy meets girl with cancer,” the films couldn’t be more different. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a teen movie for grown-ups. It’s a mature, poignant, and funny film with a wisdom beyond its years.

Me and Earl comes to theatres after winning the double whammy of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic competition at Sundance this year. The double prize shows just how smart and soulful this dramedy is. The film charts a coming of age story for Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, Project X), the titular “Me” of the film, as he reflects upon his life while writing his college application essay amidst visions of harp-playing Pussy Rioters, animated squirrels, and memories of the movie he made that actually killed someone. Greg’s essay takes the film back to tell the story of this fatal flick as he recounts his senior year of high school.

This year is a rocky one for Greg as he strikes up a friendship with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel), the titular dying girl of the film. Rachel has leukemia, but unlike the cancer kids of The Fault in Our Stars, she knows that her illness is a lot more than a metaphor. Together, Greg and Rachel get along smartly by yakking about nothing and inventing stories that distract both of them from Rachel’s impending death. Throughout their sort-of-forced-but-actually-really-sweet playdates, Greg narrates in voiceover how different this budding relationship is from one he’s seen in the movies. There are no swooning kisses or swelling orchestras: Greg’s non-Hollywood love story develops with the same awkward pauses and fumbled opportunities that most teenagers experience with their first loves.

Greg, a devout film buff, sees his life as the movies. His world is rooted in cinephilia, in which he immerses himself daily with his best friend and partner in crime, Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler). Greg and Earl are a two-man film club: they watch classics during lunch in the closet-sized office of their teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), and make movies outside of school. Greg and Earl haven't found their voice yet—they're still budding film geek—so the movies they churn out are fun send-ups and parodies of their favourite classics. A Clockwork Orange becomes the sock puppet mischief A Sockwork Orange. Earl struts his stuff like Joe Buck in 2:38 PM Cowboy. Breathless becomes the asthmatic nouvelle-vague(ish) Breathe(less) and so on. They're fun, harmless, and shoddy larks: perfects escapes for adolescents who don't fit in at high school and better identify with stories outside of the mainstream.

Each of these parodies—roughly fifty in all when one amasses all the excerpts and DVD covers in the Gaines-Jackson library—are part of Me and Earl’s intricate patchwork of the film that infuses Greg’s life with the film experience and blurs it indiscernibly with art and pop culture. Me and Earl is a film about film buffs made by film buffs as these boys with excellent taste in movies make send-ups to some of the best films of all time. Even better, though, are the ways in which director Alejandro Gomez-Rejon weaves elements of the films screened by Greg and Earl into Me and Earl’s overall structure. A snippet of The 400 Blows that Greg watches on his laptop becomes a reference point for the ways that movies inform and shape Greg’s worldview as the familiar final music notes of Truffault’s film echo throughout the hallways of Greg’s school as he matures like fellow lost boy Antoine Doinel. It’s an expertly crafted film to which the nuances offer insider’s rewards to anyone who grew up on a diet of classic cinema.

The boys embark on a shoot more ambitious than Francis Ford Coppola trudging through the jungle on Apocalypse Now when Rachel stumbles upon Greg and Earl's self-made Criterion Collection and falls in love with their goofy stories. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl beautifully uses this critical moment in Greg’s adolescence to explore the juncture at which a budding artist must carve his own unique voice. The film takes the creative process to heart as the highly entertaining parodies serve as enjoyable fodder for film buffs to dabble in filmmaking before they hone their craft to make genuine art. Like a film challenge regular making the first step into the film festival world, Greg and Earl’s newest project finds itself at a crossroads where the makers must choose between the path of the pleasure seeker and the road of the artist. Where else but from life does an artist find his inspiration, and Greg’s first film—an unexpected Stan Brakhage-y experimental work—is a sweetly poetic celebration of the people who shape our lives and experiences.

Me and Earl doesn’t take Rachel’s condition lightly, either, as Greg finds himself through the journey of love and loss that he experiences with Rachel. While life undeniably shapes art, and a filmmaker like Greg would undoubtedly project his grief and love into a film, Me and Earl finds a considerable dramatic punch in Rachel’s experience with cancer. The film deftly balances comedy and tragedy, though, as Gomez-Rejon, working from a script by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own book), expertly blends humour and heartbreak. The tragedy in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is almost imperceptibly subtle, particularly in Molly Shannon’s hilariously devastating performance as Rachel’s mother, who flirts with Greg and Earl from behind a bottomless wineglass as she watches her only daughter die at an unfairly young age.

Shannon is a scene-stealer in a strong ensemble. The three stars—Mann, Cyler, and Cooke—are truly excellent. These three performers bring an edge and vitality that doesn’t come alive often enough in films about the high school years. Me and Earl, despite its attention to form and smorgasbord of meta-movie references, carries not an ounce of self-consciousness. Fun supporting turns by Connie Britton and Nic Offerman as Greg’s eccentric parents add more colours to the ensemble, while a small but important role by Bernthal as the boys’ teacher rounds out the down-to-earth authenticity of the ensemble.

Mr. McCarthy offers the boys the finest advice of the film as Me and Earl builds to the cathartic premiere of Greg and Earl’s film for Rachel. Their teacher tells them that one continues to learn about a person long after his or her death. As Greg sees Rachel’s world anew, the film draws out the finer nuances left by the story’s true artist—Rachel—who finds inspiration in the boy who visits her every day. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film buff’s dream as it flows through a world in which everything feels like the movies, but it hits closest for film buffs as Greg opens his eyes to all the subtleties he misses in the everyday drama of his life.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing in select cities from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It opens in Ottawa on June 26th at Landmark Kanata.
Update: it screens at The Mayfair beginning Aug. 7 and at The ByTowne Aug. 20-23.