Movies · Reviews

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Is Heartfelt and Hilarious Pop Perfection

By  · Published on June 12th, 2015

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Editor’s note: Our review of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.

Films saddled with the label “quirky” are often dismissed sight unseen these days as they’ve earned something of a bad rap in recent years. It’s frequently well-deserved as many attempt to take a shortcut into our good graces with oddball supporting characters, manic pixie dream girls and impromptu dance/singalong scenes, but few succeed because they’re usually surface-level efforts. So when a movie comes along that backs up its fun-loving eccentricities with raw honesty, sincere depth and glorious belly laughs you should pay attention.

(That’s your cue to pay attention.)

Greg (Thomas Mann) is an insecure high school senior self-removed from the disputes and dramas of his classmates’ various cliques. He maintains his role of neutral party by existing as a fringe member of every group and a full member of none, and instead spends his free time hanging out with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) making short film homages (“Senior Citizen Kane,” “Pooping Tom”) to the movies they love. His low profile is shattered when his mom strongly suggests he pay a visit to a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and while both he and “the dying girl” initially resent the intrusion into their respective worlds a life-defining friendship is born.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a deliriously fun and affecting film guaranteed to leave your face in disarray as a steady stream of tears do battle with uncontrollable laughter. Think (500) Days of Summer plus 50/50 minus Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and you’ll have an idea what to expect with this sweet, smart and painfully honest look at the trials and tribulations of our teenage years.

Greg narrates the film reminding us throughout that his friendship with Rachel is doomed – a statement backed up by onscreen text counting down the days – but also that we shouldn’t worry too much because she lives. It’s cautiously reassuring, especially when we see her struggle through chemotherapy, but those dueling statements keep us constantly aware and unable to take our time with Rachel for granted.

That’s made even easier by Cooke’s spunky but fragile performance. Rachel shows no interest in Greg’s presence at first, but as she’s worn down by his attempts at humor (a mix of self-effacement and ill-themed jokes about death) she grows to appreciate him in ways no one else has. (Well, no one but Earl, but we’ll get to him in a minute.) Cooke visibly blossoms before us as Greg’s antics force a smile onto her tired lips, and you can’t help but smile right along with her. Her talk about being unattractive before and during chemo is patently ridiculous, but Cooke makes you believe that Rachel believes it, and the weight of her emotional pain transcends mere vanity.

You’d expect that Earl and his friendship with Greg would be left as sideline distractions existing solely for the occasional laughs, but one of the many strengths of Jesse Andrews’ script (adapted from his own novel) is the relationship between these two lifelong friends. Earl plays a role in many of the film’s biggest laughs, and Cyler gives a spectacular supporting performance complete with fantastic timing and delivery, but their friendship takes some compelling dramatic turns as well. Their love of film is what binds them, and it’s represented with real wit and affection through brief glimpses of their short films (which I sincerely hope are present as a special feature on the eventual Blu-ray/DVD release). The shorts serve a purpose similar to the music in High Fidelity – they add a richness to the characters beyond simply seeing a poster on their wall or hearing them quote a movie. They also work as moments of authentic, artistic love, and when combined with Greg’s social interactions we’re gifted with a film that reminds us of the people and pieces of art we once (or still) called special.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Greg’s parents (Connie Britton, Nick Offerman) are little more than window dressing, but most teens would agree that adults are never the focus in their lives. Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mom, but while she’s also a bit player here she plays it a bit too big. It’s not up to SNL levels, but Shannon and the film would benefit if she had dialed it back some. One adult performance of note here is a teacher played by Jon Bernthal. The actor’s been stuck in a rut of gritty, violent characters adverse to using their brains, but here he’s allowed to stretch with comedy and sincerity and succeeds greatly.

The film is a pleasant surprise from start to finish, and there are a couple unexpected details behind the camera as well. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s recent resume includes a dozen episodes of American Horror Story and last year’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake/sequel, and while at first glance this seems like an odd pairing it’s clear even in those genre efforts that he has style and skill to burn. The film also features the work of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon who previously served as director of photography on Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Stoker (among others) – and if you’ve seen any of those you know the man shoots beautiful films. That trend continues here as the movie is a visual delight in its eye and energy.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an awkward mouthful of a title, but the film is a ridiculously tasty slice of magic. Beautifully shot and acted, smartly written and capable of tickling your funny bone just as frequently as it pokes your tear ducts, this is a rare film that deserves a spot in the home and hearts of anyone who loves movies and loves life.

The Upside: Rare honesty; very funny and sweet; immensely imaginative and appealing for film lovers; wonderful performances, with RJ Cyler in particular being a standout

The Downside: Minor genre tropes; Molly Shannon is a bit overdone

On the Side: Jesse Andrews’ second feature, Crazy U, is currently in development with producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.