Depending on your character type, you know you’re going to cry; the clue is in the cute, rhyming title, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. And even though the lead character tells us more than once in a voice-over narration, “She doesn’t die. She gets better. Promise,” it’s going to happen. Of course it’s going to happen. You know that going in.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is now a senior at a Pittsburgh high school. He’s the kind of guy that just wants to get through those years and come out the other end in one piece. He wants to be invisible. He’d rather float through, unseen, uninvolved, and survive. When it comes to being with others, he’s always ill at ease.
Greg’s only school friend is long-time, childhood buddy, Earl (Ronald Cyler ll) with whom he shares an interest in classic movies. Together they make short films; parodies based on original, well known titles. Among their private collection is My Dinner with Andre the Giant, Death in Tennis, Senior Citizen Kane and Eyes Wide Butt. They even get to use Nilson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ in their parody, 2:48pm Cowboy. It gets them through the day.
Then Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) tells her son that a girl Greg kind of knows in passing at school, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has leukemia. She insists Greg play his part and visit her. “Just give Rachel a call,” mom pleads. So he does, reluctantly. He even goes to her house to visit, though he remains annoyingly aloof, particularly when Rachel believes he’s there out of pity. “I’m not here because I pity you,” he insists. “I’m here because my mom made me.” And from there an unlikely friendship develops, involving Earl, those short films, the trials and tribulations of getting through that final year of high school in one piece before college, and a girl who’s dying.
Based on a debut novel by Jesse Andrews who also wrote the screenplay, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is told with the same entertaining though unlikely whimsy as the title might suggest. Narrated throughout by Greg, the film is told not in chapters but in parts, thus the moment Greg enters high school, the titles The Part Where I Began Senior High appear. Other titles include The Part Where I Meet the Dying Girl, and eventually, The Part After All the Other Parts. There are even subheadings such as Day 1 of a Doomed Friendship.
Besides cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s continually inventive use of the widescreen, a nice touch is the film’s honesty. Even though many will be moved, it doesn’t indulge in self-pity – the wise-acre humor of oddball students and eccentric adults takes care of that – and its conclusion feels real. Greg and Rachel would never have bonded as they do under regular high school circumstances but cancer-themed conditions dictate otherwise. When Greg later discovers certain carvings within the pages of Rachel’s hardback books in her bedroom reflecting stages of their brief but important times together, the normally invisible Greg finally gets to see just how important he really was to her.
Those who enjoyed Andrews’ novel should be happy. There are differences – Greg’s short that he makes for Rachel is never shown to the entire school during assembly – but the bulk of the story is there, and so is the dry, sardonic humor. High schoolers talk in that snarky, well-observed, educated manner that occurs only in films; they’re all seventeen going on thirty-five. It’s as though author Jesse Andrews had revisited high school and wrote dialog from the perspective of an adult. He’s mixed The Fault in Our Stars and peppered it with Juno. You’ll either embrace it whole heartedly or give a wave of dismissal.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 Minutes overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)