Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, was undoubtedly the biggest film to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as it won both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition. On paper, it’s a film that sounds like your typical “Sundance movie.” From its quirky title to its lighthearted take on dark subject matter, the film already seems to be in love with itself and all of its nuances. While Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is definitely the exact type of movie you would see at Sundance every year, it still manages to subvert these expectations. The film brilliantly chooses to turn up its comedic sensibilities over its melodramatic ones, so that its key emotional parts make for a striking contrast. Given that we just got a similar teen drama last summer, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl not only is more successful than that film, but most teen films in general, through its visually original take on the genre, a justifiable amount of self-awareness, and fully realized characters. It’s a total crowd pleaser, but both mainstream audiences and cinephiles will find a lot to love.
The film begins with unabashedly average teenager Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) beginning his last year of high school. He’s in no way the popular guy, but he isn’t a total nerd either; he’s just trying to fit into the background of people’s lives as much as possible. Though he has one friend, or “co-worker” as he calls it, named Earl (RJ Cycler). The two make short films together that are essentially abridged, DIY parodies of cinematic classics. They’re awful, but they have a charm to them. Greg’s life really isn’t much, and he knows it, but one unfortunate turn of events dares to change that. When Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl he barely even knows from school, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) forces him to be friends with her and keep her company. It’s a story that could immediately run into plenty of teen romance clichés, but Greg tells you upfront in his blunt narration that no, this isn’t a love story, and no, Rachel doesn’t die. Instead, the film involves itself in showing how this very unconventional friendship teaches Greg not to settle for mediocrity and to finally consider what he should do with his life. This may sound like boring first world teen problems, but rarely do films understand “boring first world teen problems” as well as this one does.
It’s important to remember that this story is told from the perspective of Greg, a kid not easily swayed by any sort of conflict. So, Gomez-Rejon has a great visual interpretation of Greg’s outlook on high school, girls, and dealing with responsibilities, as he uses camera techniques you would have never imagined being used in a teen film. He does some fantastic work with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, whose style surprisingly suits Greg’s self-indulgent narration. They both constantly find new ways to create natural and personal space, and they are most effective in the heavier and more dramatic scenes. At times the camera freely moves without a single misstep, and at other times, it’s not afraid to stay in one place and let the acting and staging speak for itself. The film goes back and forth between its changes in camerawork and framing just enough to prove that the director knows what he’s doing. Though when the visuals aren’t all over the screen, the screenplay by Jesse Andrews, based on his book of the same name, is consistently entertaining with its hilarious and realistic dialogue. Andrews recognizes that while cancer is not a light subject, teens trying to come to terms with it while dealing with their own petty issues shouldn’t be something that’s taken too seriously either.
To add more to the film’s authenticity is its cast and how their characters are approached. No one in Greg’s high school looks like a model. The adults in Greg’s life talk like normal adults, rather than constantly giving him shoehorned philosophical advice, except for maybe Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman), but his character is intentionally odd, so we’ll count him out. These are parameters that teen films should always follow if they want to be good, and this movie surpasses them. Mann perfectly plays Greg as the aimless teen with untapped potential. Cooke is also great as Rachel, as she avoids turning her into the “manic pixie dream girl” for Greg. She doesn’t need anyone to make her better or to even make someone else better; she literally just needs companionship, and her performance embodies that. While unfortunately he is the “token black friend” of the movie, Cycler is still very memorable as Earl and is really funny in how he’s the constant reality check to Greg’s whininess. It’s an all-around solid cast, which also includes Jon Bernthal as Greg’s laidback teacher and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s loopy mother, that helps make up what is already a well put-together film.
As much as I can praise Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, this is still a Sundance-friendly teen comedy about a girl with cancer. If you dislike these types of movies, you might not be on board with this one right away, but hopefully it’ll win you over with how funny and poignant it gets, without it being patronizing. For me, personally, I’m a sucker for indie comedies, and when they go above and beyond what is expected, they win me over completely. I see myself watching this over and over again, no matter how heartbreaking the film gets sometimes. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is certainly one of my favorites of the year so far.