REVIEW: 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'


When I was going through high school, I remember getting frustrated from time to time with an assignment or some awkward social situation. More than once, my parents would sympathize and remind me, “high school is hell”. Of course, we knew that you could have fun in high school, but every so often it devolves into a unique blend of torture.

Maybe that’s why the hero of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a high school senior named Greg, instantly appealed to me. He’s tapped into film and literature, and sees through the conventions of high school life. Greg doesn’t want to follow a particular path because everyone else his age is expected to, but yet he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself by bucking trends. Yes, it’s very possible that Greg may be the spirit animal for teenage angst.

The movie built around Greg ends up being one of the most sensitive and intelligent films set in a high school that I’ve seen, from a couple of fresh voices that I’d love to see more from. Don’t let dismissive Buzzfeed posts lead you astray – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has the potential to make a real mark, if enough people seek it out and spread the word.

Greg is a deliberate outcast – deliberate in the sense that he could probably join a clique or a group if he wanted to, but he sees himself as too smart for that. He worries that aligning himself with a label in high school – like theatre geek, goth or popular kid - will only lead to being hated by someone eventually. So Greg chooses to become a passing acquaintance with everyone. He’s friendly enough to defuse any possible conflicts with them, but otherwise he’s a ghost. Most importantly, Greg avoids the battleground of the cafeteria at lunchtime and eats in his history teacher’s office, watching classic movies with his “coworker” (read: best friend) Earl.

RJ Cyler and Thomas Mann as Earl and Greg.

Together, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) take the titles of their favourite classic films, twist them into dopey puns, and film the results. Glimpsed only briefly are creations like A Sockwork Orange (sock puppets wearing Kubrickian makeup), or 2:48 p.m. Cowboy (fringed jacket and all). As far as Greg’s concerned, it’s an unobtrusive way to survive high school – as long as the movies stay secret. But when Greg is forced to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who’s been diagnosed with cancer, his carefully-planned method of avoiding conflict begins to fall apart, especially when he finds that he might actually be making friends with a girl who’s running out of time.

If you haven’t noticed already, Greg initially approaches life with a sort of clear-headed pragmatism that’s a recurring trait in many of Wes Anderson’s characters, like Max Fischer in Rushmore or Sam Shakusky in Moonrise Kingdom. These characters are all convinced that they have the world figured out, and that their way of navigating it won’t have any consequences. Of course, as Anderson proves in his films, and as Me and Earl goes on to do, life has a way of making even smart people question their convictions.

What’s more interesting is that the similarities between Me and Earl and Anderson’s work in general don’t stop there. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon uses confident, precise camera moves that feel like direct references to the cinematography in Anderson’s films. This means that Me and Earl may be one of the first films to take inspiration from Anderson, who up until now has been thought of as a relatively young director who quotes other filmmakers, not a filmmaker who’s been around long enough to be quoted himself.

Yet it would be unwise to reduce Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to its influences, since Gomez-Rejon contributes plenty of his own ideas. Namely, in several scenes he holds the camera in unbroken shots that force the actors to carry the story entirely themselves. The performances that come out of this technique prove just how good the young actors playing Greg, Earl and Rachel are. And it becomes key when the film shifts from poking fun at high school and into dealing with Rachel’s illness. Instead of relying on hysterics, the actors’ instinct to stay quiet and let a scene breathe says a lot more than any screenwriter can.

Olivia Cooke as the titular "dying girl", Rachel, whose story is handled with humour and sensitivity.

Of course, any film with the words “dying girl” in the title, or the implication that it’s going to work through topics like serious illness and death, might make some potential viewers worry they’re in for a depressing exercise, where modern teenagers re-iterate truths about loss. While Me and Earl does cover those themes, I was happy to find that it didn’t set out to crush viewers with weighty material. Instead, screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who adapted his own debut novel) layers deadpan jokes with dramatic revelations, bringing the film a lot closer to the ups and downs of real life.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl should be fast-tracked to the pantheon of the most relevant, funny and bittersweet high school films ever made; a list that includes works like The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused and Mean Girls. It’s a film with a lot to say – not just about high school – and with a clever way of saying it. I almost wish it had come along earlier, if only to have such a useful guide when it was my turn to manoeuvre through those hallways.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

The film is slowly rolling out in theatres now (after premiering at Sundance in the winter). If you’ve seen it, what did you think? Is it a fresh story that brings the high school genre up to date? Or is it only rehashing ideas from older movies? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!