A film has to be pretty charming to compensate for insufferable characters. Whether it be a spellbinding plot or a hint at self-awareness it is possible to create a tolerable film that’s centered on an intolerable character. Unfortunately Me And Earl And The Dying Girl forces the audience to spend time with one of the more narcissistic teenagers we have seen in years while feeding his narcissism.
The title of the film hints at the morbid overtones in the plot. Greg (Thomas Mann) is an intentional loner in his typical middle-American high school. He avoids attachment to any one clique and instead jumps from group to group spouting one-liners that only another high school underdog would consider clever. As he hops from cafeteria to classroom, his voiceover introduces the social structure of high school. Given that this cinematic tour of teenage grouping is cliché and played out, the film starts out on an unoriginal note.
When Greg arrives home after school one afternoon he learns that a girl in his grade has just been diagnosed with leukemia. His mother (Connie Britton) asks him to visit the girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), in the event that she needs a friend during such a trying period. He reluctantly heads to her house and after some resistance, they become friends. She gets to know Greg more and we eventually learn who the titular Earl is as well.
Earl (RJ Cyler) is Greg’s only friend, though they refer to one another as coworkers. Earl is a one-note character who spouts lines about “dem titties” with no shame. Admittedly his lines are the funniest in the film, but they never add anything to the plot or to Earl’s character development. Together, Earl and Greg remake famous films—Criterion Collection type flicks—with a twist. They change a word in the film’s title to make it sophomoric. Think along the lines of Eyes Wide Butt, and you’ll get an idea of the depth of these films. These homages are actually darn clever. Their cutesiness can be grating, and clearly pandering to cinephiles, but as a cinephile myself it is nice being included on an inside joke.
As the film progresses and Rachel’s health worsens, Greg ditches the tribute films and sets out to create an original film for her. The film becomes his obsession and conveniently distracts him from his classes and college applications.
Rachel’s disease is heartbreaking and Cooke’s performance is quiet and powerful. She balances the vulnerability of a terminal cancer with the periodic insolence of a teenager. And both Britton and Nick Offerman shine as Greg’s hippy parents. Frustratingly the film does not focus on anyone other than Greg.
Greg is self-centered, self-serving, and immature. The biggest issue I had with Me And Earl And the Dying Girl is the fact that the film seems unaware of the monster it has created and is just as enamored with Greg as he is with himself. Throughout the film, Greg manages to spin every aspect of Rachel’s illness to somehow be about him. If she takes a bad turn it is inconvenient for him. When his mother asks him to go to Rachel’s house, the entire process of convincing him to visit the sick girl in his school is all about him. Narcissism in teenagers is not surprising, but the film never criticizes him for this; it encourages him. Greg only pays attention to himself and the film rarely takes its gaze elsewhere. Even as Rachel is careening towards her seemingly imminent death, the most interesting part of her character is her quirky friend Greg. She deserves more than that.
Character issues aside, the film tries far too hard to add eccentric touches to the visual language. Camera movement and editing do give the film a playful feel. And thankfully this lightened mood is never applied to the heavier cancer focused scenes, but this distancing sensitivity comes across as stylistically inconsistent. The camera behaves traditionally for most of the film, and will then randomly pan across the scene at an odd angle, just to be different. The periodic interest in style comes across like Greg’s passing interest in anything other than himself: disingenuous.
Me And Earl And the Dying Girl has won a slew of awards at film festivals, including two top awards at Sundance. Even with these accolades I found it frustrating and completely unaware of the portrayals of the characters. This lack of reflexivity is troubling and makes me question the intention of the filmmaker.
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
R.J. Cyler Jr.
Film Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Distributor: Fox Searchlight