Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jesse Andrews

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

I’d like to dedicate this piece to my good friend Andy, a man of rare intelligence and passion for rock climbing that the Knoxville community and the world at large lost far too soon.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl may be unafraid of confronting brutal realities but it has little interest in festering in sorrow and solemnity. In fact the blunt title is a strange acknowledgement that things are going to be okay. Much like Rachel’s frilly purple pillow it cushions us if even just slightly from the gut-punch we prepare ourselves for throughout this meditation on life’s transience.

Sure, there’s a sense of inevitability and dare I say it, predictability, that casts a pall over Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel, a.k.a. ‘the girl’ (Olivia Cooke) and the last few weeks of their high school lives but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his idiosyncratic crew would be damned if the weight of the material is going to get the better of them. In spite of its originality — first and foremost in the form of a knock-out performance from Mann, whose previous work didn’t exactly instill confidence in his acting prowess — I hesitate to say my relationship with Earl is one of complete, albeit beautiful, cliché. Rarely have I been so impressed with the value a movie places not only on youth but on life itself. To say I emerged from the theater with my outlook even remotely altered would be the cherry on top of that cliché sundae but hey, can I just say it anyway?

I was moved, yes. Yes I was.

That’s him and Earl . . .

The Part Where I Tell You About The Plot.

Greg’s informed by his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) that a school friend — Greg insists she’s just an acquaintance — has been diagnosed with leukemia. His father (a very hippie Nick Offerman), reiterating that the situation “sucks quite a bit,” shares mom’s concern that Greg ought to befriend Rachel during this difficult time. Greg knows Rachel would see through the idea, but goes anyway. And lo and behold she sees right through the idea; she doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Over time, however, Rachel becomes drawn to Greg’s peculiar sense of humor and aggressively self-effacing nature, though he hesitates to place the ‘friendship’ label on any relationships he shares with his peers. Especially with Earl, a longtime “co-worker” with whom he eats lunch daily in Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal)’s office . . . because of air conditioning and fears of getting caught up in any sort of clique constituting the chaos that defines Schenley High’s cafeteria.

Aside from social awkwardness, the pair share a passion for spoofing canonical films. One day class hottie Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) gets wind of this and asks them if they would make a film dedicated to Rachel. Given that their previous efforts are of a rather immature and bizarre nature — avant garde wouldn’t be the worst way to describe them — Greg is primarily concerned with coming up with something that would feel appropriate. When Earl tells Rachel about the idea to make this film, we witness the fall-out: Greg’s self-conscientiousness and Earl’s open honesty clashing with brutal force, with little thought given to how shallow and pointless the conflict really is.

Unfortunately it gives way to a larger rift between Greg and Rachel, the latter who is trying her hardest to deal with the reality of not knowing what the next day brings. All those weeks giving way to months of shared time in her bedroom, a room occupied by a diverse collection of pillows only an indie film could get away with drawing attention to on more than one occasion. Has all this time meant nothing? Was it just Greg’s parents ordering him to be there the reason he kept returning? Greg describes the friendship as doomed, but we’re not exactly sure how serious he is about that sentiment.

And this is the girl.

The Part Where I Act Like I Know How to Critique a Film.

Pervading Earl is a refreshing directness — from the performances to the tight framing of this hectic school environment and the surrounding neighborhood; from physical execution to the various thematic threads, nearly every aspect of the production lives and dies by its willingness to be casually confronting. It’s a film that allows a conversation about death and the fleetingness of existence to come about organically, although there are of course meanderings into subplots involving popsicles, “accidental” drug-taking, and peculiar food only Nick Offerman would be into for real.

As Rachel, Olivia Cooke exudes braveness and it’s a quality that clearly rubs off on her young co-stars. The distinction of most memorable performance may go to Mann but Cooke is damn good. Parenting as a function of the way we grow and experience is wisely given a substantive role as well. Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother is unhinged but empathetic. She may be a little off her rocker and too often a poor role model for these kids but she’s a single parent desperately trying to deal with her daughter’s illness. Similarly, Greg’s parents are borderline obnoxious but they explain a great deal about Greg’s off-kilter personality. Matured and young adult alike aren’t alienated by unrealistic writing; they’re imperfect, sometimes off-putting but more often than not relatable.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ debut novel of the same name, Earl shares more in common with the ‘me’ in its title: like Greg, the narrative is equal parts profound and humble. Drama doesn’t draw attention to itself until a final tear-jerking sequence of events that simultaneously surprise and confirm early suspicions. The narrative is straightforward but as anyone who has navigated the halls of high school will attest, that journey is anything but. When you factor in a life-altering experience such as the one facing Rachel and those that she’s involuntarily surrounded by, all bets are off on how anyone is going to fare come the end of the storm. Speaking for myself, this isn’t life-changing stuff but it is life-affirming. This is surprisingly uplifting for a film with ‘dying’ as part of the title.

Recommendation: Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore effort proves an emotional experience, a beautiful representation of a difficult high school experience. It’s a great companion piece to 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Simmering with brutal honesty and endearing personalities, Earl isn’t always fun and games but as a big fan of films that refuse to sugarcoat its themes, I find it’s an easy one to embrace. And anyone who can appreciate really off-beat characters are sure to find plenty to sink their teeth into here.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “So if this was a touching romantic story, this is where our eyes would meet and we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns, but this isn’t a touching romantic story.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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14 thoughts on “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

  1. I very briefly read this title somewhere the other day and was wondering what the hell, though it seems to be something well worth watching! Excellent write up, as always!

    • Yes I have to admit the title is a bit off-putting. But what it’s about is deeply moving. I’m a big fan of indie and quirky films, though so I might have sung its praises more than some have been. I think it’s something you’ll enjoy since it rarely flirts with that sappy romance type stuff while still building a very believable relationship. A powerful movie for sure.

    • Thanks man! It’s a terrific film, full of heart and really emotionally hard-hitting moments. I loved it.

  2. Hi Tom, I’m with you that the quirks get to be too much for me at times. But that third act was very good and emotional, which was what I was hoping for. I don’t gravitate towards extremely odd ball characters but I think people who do would like this more than I did. But those movie parodies are a hoot!

    • I dug how oddball this was. I’m into that kind of thing for sure, and it’s why I think comparisons to Perks of Being a Wallflower are warranted. But I think movies like this make it easy for people who can’t identify with very-far-left-of-“normalcy” are going to struggle embracing this trio. Maybe moreso Greg and Earl.

      But yes! Their movie spoofs was probably a comedic highlight. As was the moose-stomping. I absolutely loved the comparisons to that and the class hottie. “Hot girls ruin your life.” Lol!

  3. “The Part Where I Act Like I Know How to Critique a Film” – haha! I felt like that just 20 minutes ago! I like the sound of this and will look out for it.

    Sorry to hear about the death of your friend.

    • Much appreciated Stu, it’s been a rough couple of days for sure.

      I broke the review up in sections like that as a tribute to the quirky structure of the narrative. It gives these really funny but effective introductions that function as transitions, and they may not be subtle at all but I liked them. So I decided to apply that to the review. 🙂

      I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this. I think you’ll dig it.

  4. Cooke has been on my radar since Bates Motel and I’m chuffed for her that she’s broken through. Every year we get a breakout indie and this year it looks to be this. Top work brother; my hype-ometer is amped up now!

    • The only thing I’ve seen her in is the rather under-seen and underwhelming The Signal a couple months ago. I had it as part of one of my Bite Sized Reviews. She didn’t make much of an impression there, but then again — no one did. Haha! Here she’s fantastic. This movie is solid. I am glad to have teased this one for you! 🙂

  5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is in another league as far as I’m concerned, BUT I enjoyed this. Closer to The Fault in Our Stars with the quirky sensibility of Rushmore. Great review!!

    • Thank you sir, I am really torn between the two. I think what Perks had going for it was the sense of teenage angst and being vulnerable to indecision and knowing where to fit in. In that way it was a top-notch film. I found Me & Earl a bit deeper. I think on the whole performances were generally better in Perks as well, so in my mind they’re pretty evenly matched. 🙂 But both are memorable films. I’m glad this one rolled into town.

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