I haven’t seen the two ‘other’ cancer-stricken teenager films of recent years, in which Shailene Woodley and Mia Wasikowska play the victims – why is it usually teenage women? – but I imagine certain scenes found in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance hit Me And Earl And The Dying Girl also crop up in Josh Boone’s The Fault In Our Stars and Gus Van Sant’s Restless. Here the ill patient is Rachel Kushner, played with aplomb by Olivia Cooke, while the ‘Me’ of the title and the primary subject is awkward, creative schoolmate Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a senior in a Pittsburgh high school who is forced to visit Rachel by his mother (Connie Britton) when she tests positive for leukemia. As the title suggests Greg is our narrator, and the opening reveals that he is looking back on the months after Rachel’s diagnosis; he occasionally addresses viewers directly via a mannered voiceover, while Earl (Ronald Cyler II) is Greg’s best friend.
The relationship between the two boys is established first. The pair have been friends for years, sharing a love of arthouse cinema that seems to have been inherited from Greg’s father (Nick Offerman), and have even made 42 lo-fi ‘spoof’ films together, tackling anything and everything from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams with a roll of gaffer tape, a pair of scissors and a whole load of infectious enthusiasm (and though there are certainly similarities to this month’s The Wolfpack, or Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, Greg and Earl’s cutesy Kookywood flicks reminded me more of the elaborate stage shows of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore). Their DIY creations are never shown to anybody, though, mainly due to Greg’s vague embarrassment about the finished results, while his and Earl’s shared social reticence also sees them eschew the exaggerated, tribe-heavy corridors and canteens of their high school for the sanctuary of the office of overly-cool teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), where they are able to watch documentaries about Werner Herzog and Powell & Pressburger in peace.
This cinephile-pleasing set-up is awkwardly thrust upon the audience, but spotting the various movie references in Earl and Greg’s work (and beyond) can be fun, and their ramshackle attempts at making a documentary for Rachel before she dies are mostly charming (especially when Earl holds a grey sheet behind Rachel’s slightly-predatory single mom Denise (Molly Shannon) while she is interviewed, which he fails to keep still). Me And Earl And The Dying Girl definitely tends toward the twee, but the tone is something that I gradually warmed to, and it makes for an interesting contrast with the increasing number of serious scenes featuring Greg and Rachel as her condition worsens. It’s a movie that tries way too hard, though, a work that yelps ‘Like me! I’m wacky!’ in the same way as (500) Days Of Summer and Garden State before it. It bothered me to begin with, and although I did relax as Gomez-Rejon’s film moved into its second hour I still felt unable to fully embrace it, while the attempt to add some colour to Greg’s world by making every single character stand out for being quirky in some way or other feels like a mis-step by writer Jesse Andrews (adapting his book of the same name).
That all said, when Me And Earl And The Dying Girl returns to the subject of The Dying Girl it’s periodically both mature and moving, even if it’s a little perplexing that Rachel’s pre-Greg friends never seem to visit her and even though there’s too much convenient plotting during the prom night denouement. The screenplay is occasionally and briefly insightful on the subject of grief, though sadly more time is spent concentrating on the comic possibilities of the characters as opposed to the way in which they approach an upcoming tragedy. Thus we see way more of Rachel’s mother’s vaguely-comic Mrs Robinson-style mannerisms than the innermost thoughts of a woman who is about to lose her only daughter, and I’d have been happy to see more of the ideas and themes around death that are explored most obviously during the final ten minutes. Greg’s voiceover knowingly dispenses with any notion of romance with Rachel early on, yet he is revealed to be an unreliable verbal guide and the bittersweet ending is all the better for it. It may make more cynical viewers roll their eyes, but I was moved, and despite cringing on occasion I enjoyed this sweet and well-meaning coming-of-age dramedy (and Brian Eno’s score).
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Written by: Jesse Andrews. Based on Me And Earl And The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon.
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung.
Editing: David Trachtenberg.
Music: Brian Eno, Nico Muhly.
Running Time: 105 minutes.