The protagonist of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg, is an awkward, bumbling high-school student who tries to keep at arms lengths with every one of his fellow students, in order to avoid any sense of drama, or any potential for feelings to get involved. When he discovers that a girl he vaguely knows, Rachel, has been diagnosed with leukaemia, he is reluctant to get involved, and once he is forced to, he starts to worry how her illness is affecting not only her, but him. And, strangely enough, the film does too. This indie take on ‘weepies’ like The Fault in Our Stars takes on the interesting angle of asking mainly how Rachel’s illness breaks away Greg’s opposition to the realities of life, and how he has to face up to the real world in a way he has been avoiding his whole life. This unusual focus, one of a number of interesting narrative choices throughout the film, is a perfect example of what sets Me and Earl and the Dying Girl apart from the rest. It is an extremely funny and surprisingly down-to-earth movie that works hard to earn its sentimentality.
The screenplay, written by the author of the original book Jesse Andrews, is funny and thought provoking in equal measure, proving once again after Perks of Being a Wallflower that an author writing an adapted screenplay for their own work is a very, very good idea. The script treats its own characters like real people; the ‘dying girl’ Rachel for instance is never treated as either a helpless dame waiting for a boy to save her, nor an exaggerated superhero that beats illness through the sheer force of her own optimism. She feels like a real person, unable to totally lift themselves up from the gravity of their problems, but trying to fool others and themselves that everything is fine in the meantime. The plot follows from her and Greg hanging out to the idea that Greg and his friend Earl, who make fake parody movies together, need to make an original movie for Rachel to help raise her spirits. This is another narrative idea that is full of great potential, with wonderfully funny cinematic nods and jibes, plus the harsh realisation that making something original, and feeling the pressure for it to be perfect, is a very real struggle. Again, the mistake Greg makes is thinking it is about him rather than her, another lesson he is forced to learn in what is, essentially, a film about his character having to finally grow up.
However, the film isn’t all about being moving and life-affirming. It is also, without doubt, one of the funniest films of the year so far, completely reducing me to tears with a joke about Werner Herzog. As an indie film as well, I would say it also has potentially the best soundtrack of the genre since (500) Days of Summer, which was all the way back in 2009. The film does have its flaws; it does on occasion veer dangerously close to the kind of thing it is trying to stand out from, occasionally turning up the gooeyness and sentimentality up to eleven when in fact the audience were already under the spell. These are just minor blips however of a film that only uses sentimentality when it really earns it, and makes the audience care through more structured and grounded themes.
Although the Werner Herzog joke made me cry with laughter for about five minutes straight, there is a beautiful, horrible moment towards the end of the film that at once both helped pay off every theme of the entire film, and also (in my opinion) deliver a spectacular, harrowing tribute to Kubrick’s 2001.
There are moments, for instance when Greg and Rachel have an argument, where the characters temporarily become slightly exaggerated and momentarily fake, as the film unwisely inherits tropes from films like Fault in our Stars, which it consistently works hard to distance itself from. These moments are only minor, however.
I don’t think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will rock any boats in a lasting way, nor will it win over the naysayers who have branded it along with every other quirky, indie dramedy that some cinema-goers are assuredly tired of. For me however, I found the entire film to be a welcome breath of fresh air, a genuinely thought-provoking, small scale piece of cinema that offers a new take on the kind of manipulative, sentimental teen dramas that run out of steam before they begin. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has more to say than any of them, and that ultimately means that when it needs to use slightly clichéd moments to win our hearts, it absolutely works. It deserves every tear it’ll get out of you.