Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a must-see for moviegoers who aren’t afraid to find joy and self-reflection in the story of a dying girl.
Pittsburgh High School senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) has successfully navigated the troubles of high school life by avoiding social definition. Friendly with every clique at Schenley High, Greg fortifies his eccentric personality behind pleasantries, even with his (few) close friends. In place of parties, sport activities, and girls, Greg has spent the last ten years of his life making parody short films based on classic movies (Senior Citizen Cane and Sockwork Orange, etc) with his best friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who has come to tolerate Greg’s passive disposition.
Conversely, Greg’s mom and dad (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) are bleeding-hearts, and when Rachel (Olivia Cooke), one of Greg’s fellow Schenley seniors, is diagnosed with leukemia, the Gaines parents ask their son to befriend the neighbor girl. Preoccupied with surviving his final year in high school, Greg reluctantly agrees to visit Rachel – who is, at first, equally unenthusiastic about a visit. However, Greg’s unsentimental view of the situation is a refreshing change of pace for the dying girl, and the beginning of a challenging but life-changing journey together.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon expands the YA source material by Cybils Award-winning author Jesse Andrews into a layered reflection on life in the face of illness for teens and cinephiles, alike. Previous high school-set cancer stories have offered moving insight into the experience of fighting illness as a teen, yet Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a indelible and sophisticated experience that places romance to the side in favor of an uncompromising and authentic story of self-discovery, insecurity, fear, and love. It’s an important film filled with powerful moments (both funny and painful) that shed light on one of life’s most terrifying scenarios.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Gomez-Rejon’s second feature movie (after The Town That Dreaded Sundown) but the filmmaker has also been behind the camera of several fan-favorite TV series (including several episodes of American Horror Story). Despite Me and Earl‘s subject, Gomez-Rejon finds a savvy balance between heartbreak and humor, while imbuing the movie with an authenticity and filmic sophistication that makes the story’s highs and lows all the more impactful. Andrews’ novel lays a strong foundation, but as indicated, Gomez-Rejon imbues the setup with indie-movie quality playfulness, invention, and intimacy – not to mention strong performances from his titular leads.
Thomas Mann (Project X) stars as Greg, turning in a delicate performance charged with quirky idiosyncrasies, paralyzing fear of rejection, and hopeful idealism, all while ensuring the character is likable, relatable, and not too preachy. It’s an honest portrayal, one that plenty of teens and former-teens will recognize: an apathetic young adult struggling with powerlessness and worry, forced to watch from the sidelines as a friend battles for life.
Conversely, Ronald Cyler II portrays Earl as a wise-for-his age charmer. Unlike Greg, Earl is comfortable with his place in the larger high school ecosystem, and Gomez-Rejon relies on Cyler (a complete newcomer to acting) for balance. In spite of a short resume, Cyler is a welcome addition to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, with a charismatic and humorous performance that would have been a challenge for any actor – especially one with limited feature experience. Earl is a nuanced element of the narrative, bridging humor with heart-wrenching reality, without violating the film’s deft examination of youth and illness. In spite of a sharp turn from Mann, Cyler regularly steals the spotlight.
Rounding out the main trio, Cooke (Bates Motel) provides a vulnerable and truthful portrayal of “Dying Girl” Rachel. Instead of an overly-exuberant hero or pessimistic shell, Cooke presents Rachel’s cancer battle with humble sincerity – embracing laughter alongside bitterness and pain. Rachel’s journey isn’t a steady decline or rousing victory, so Gomez-Rejon and Cooke chart her day-to-day fight, full of ups, downs, and everything in between: hope, anger, wonder, depression. To that end, Cooke succeeds with a subtle portrayal, one that will ring true to anyone that has been touched, directly or indirectly, by life-threatening illness.
Greg, Earl, and Rachel are the primary focus of Gomez-Rejon’s film; yet, the director also culled an impressive supporting cast – full of familiar faces (some playing against type): Nick Offerman and Connie Britton, as mentioned, with Molly Shannon as Rachel’s shell-shocked single mom and Jon Bernthal playing Greg and Earl’s mentor/no-nonsense history teacher, Mr. McCarthy. Offerman, Britton, and Shannon all get memorable scenes in the spotlight but moviegoers who only know Bernthal from tough-guy roles (The Walking Dead and Fury) will be especially surprised to see what the actor can deliver – when allowed to play a healthy and fully-functional person.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a must-see for moviegoers who aren’t afraid to find joy and self-reflection in the story of a dying girl. Gomez-Rejon’s latest is a brave piece of filmmaking that blends humor and heartbreak, while also presenting an inspiring tale of personal growth. Some viewers might assume the film’s high school setting means it’s only for teens, even in spite of the heavy subject matter, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is, at its core, a story of love and friendship in a time of uncertain circumstances – an intimate narrative that will leave a lasting impression on any film fan, regardless of age.
Me Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is Rated PG – 13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements. Now playing in theaters. Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.
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