Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior doing his best to avoid anything resembling human relationships. His only friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he casually refers to as a co-worker and not a friend because the two co-create spoof films based upon cinematic classics with names such as My Dinner With Andre the Giant, A Sockwork Orange and The Janitor of Oz. Content to live a quiet life off the high school grid, Greg is thrown a curve when his parents, played to expected perfection by Nick Offerman and Connie Britton, insist that he visit neighborhood youth Rachel (Olivia Cooke), whose recent diagnosis with leukemia is deemed "a very bad thing." While not exactly thrilled at forced socialization, Greg acquiesces to his parents' wishes and, rather unexpectedly, the two strike up a friendship based less on sympathy and more on a weaving together of offbeat humor and laid back authenticity. "It's not love," we are reassured by Greg, as narrator, repeatedly.
But, it sure is something.
Winner of a Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and has also picked up prizes at Nashville Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival and if Fox Searchlight does its job seems poised for a successful indie/arthouse run through theaters existing somewhere between the criminally underseen critical popularity of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the mildly unexpected box-office boom set off by John Green's similarly themed yet entirely different The Fault in Our Stars.
Based upon a novel by Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the kind of film that you head into with almost undeniable expectations for an emotional, maybe even dark experience.
You'd be wrong.
Oh sure, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl earns its share of tears but, as well, you'll likely be pleasantly surprised by just how entertaining the film is and just how often you laugh in a film that is just as much about a guy's inability to connect with the world as it is about a girl who is very likely dying of leukemia. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a former personal assistant to Martin Scorsese who has also worked with producer Ryan Murphy, has crafted a film with more style than The Fault in Our Stars while not losing that film's endearing simplicity and low-key emotions.
Me and Earl and The Dying Girl is the kind of film that Greg could likely never create, but it's likely the kind of film he most appreciates as it takes risks and is more emotionally honest than a good majority of films playing even the arthouses these days. Greg is played with a not quite geeky awkwardness by Thomas Mann, likely most familiar to audiences from his work in Project X. Mann is quietly masterful as Greg, portraying him as a young man who is almost painfully socially awkward yet also socially insightful and witty enough that he could easily and believable have the social circle he constantly repels. It's all a difficult balance and Mann pulls it off perfectly.
As Rachel, kudos must be given to Olivia Cooke, a British actress who has played Bates Motel's Emma for the past few seasons. Cooke's Rachel is almost jarringly honest in her portrayal of one's physical deterioration with leukemia. There are a couple of scenes between Rachel and Greg that are aching in their vulnerability, scenes that seem to practically still the entire film with their emotional depth and avoidance of the humor that so frequently defines the growing friendship between Rachel and Greg.
The lensing by Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung is creative and inspired, perhaps being the quality that most kept reminding me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. While some will no doubt consider Chung's approach promoting a bit more self-absorption for our teen characters, for me it felt like a perfect weaving together of the emotional and physical lives of these young people.
Newcomer RJ Cyler's Earl could have easily been a lost secondary character, yet he is instead portrayed as an absolutely vital transitional character who serves as a bridge of sorts between Greg and the world around him. Cyler's role is initially one of comic relief, yet it evolves into quite a bit more as the relationship between Greg and Rachel deepens. Cyler follows this increasingly dramatic arc quite nicely and creates a memorable, satisfying character.
The supporting characters are equally memorable here. Nick Offerman gives a slight twist to his usual abrupt characterization, while Jon Bernthal is spot-on as a tattooed history teacher. Katherine Hughes has the challenging task of portraying a classmate with whom Greg is interested in a more romantic way, while Molly Shannon gives her usual solid performance as Rachel's slightly humorous, emotionally resonant mother.
There is simply no question that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the best films from the first half of 2015, a film with humor and heart and honesty and refreshingly honest performances all the way around. It's the kind of film that you don't necessarily expect to fall completely in love with, yet days after watching it you're still thinking about it and wanting to immerse yourself in that world all over again. In the world of what Heartland Film calls truly moving pictures, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the best.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic