On the surface of it, some may apply hesitation to this film, the combination of a clunky title and a plot that involves a high schooler and his relationship with a girl who has a life threatening illness sounds like adolescent twee overload for those who don’t dig that kind of genre. But don’t let that put you off because Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most refreshing teen movies in recent times and also a giddy treat for film lovers.
Greg (Thomas Mann) believes he has high school sussed; he belongs to no one peer group, instead flitting between each social group without having any real friendships. The closest he comes to one is with Earl (R J Cyler) who he refers to as his ‘co-worker’ as they make no budget parodies of American and European classic movies (Sockwork Orange, The Rad Shoes, 2.48pm Cowboy). But when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with a fellow classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who has recently been diagnosed with leukaemia, Greg’s outlook on life is infinitely altered.
Managing to sidestep the veritable clichés that may arise with the subject matter, Me and Earl instead marches to its own beat, when you think it’s going to go a certain way, it doesn’t, with Greg’s narration even reminding us throughout the film ‘it’s not that kind of movie’. This is helped in spades by the performances of the young cast who avoid sugary sentimentality and instead produce something funny and tender from their characters. Thomas Mann has the awkward job as the awkward Greg to walk the line between self involved and self loathing but does so with subtle wit. Meanwhile Northerner Olivia Cooke impresses with a quiet dignity that avoids self pity and a spot on American accent.
Director Alfonso Gomez Rejon cut his teeth as an assistant for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
and it is evident that these, amongst others, have influenced him as his film combines warmth, charm and a love of arthouse cinema, throwing in offbeat scenes and framing into the mix. Not many teen movies would include an ode to Peeping Tom or their young lead character doing a (rather good) impression of Werner Herzog and fewer would do so with such wit and endearment rather than for hipster credentials.
There has been criticism of the film by some who feel that Rachel’s only function is to make Greg a better person but to attack a film that’s heart is in the right place feels snippy. From the offset we are positioned with Greg’s view, the film does not shy away from this but does not present him as the hero; he is a young man with a limited view, highlighted by his inability to connect and the way he only produces remakes of movies. And encouragingly Rachel does not become the love interest or the pixie dream girl, she becomes the heart and though she may enter the film as the catalyst for Greg, she becomes the subject, not the object; her energy reflected in the film that Greg is assigned to make for her.
Me and Earl at points references cult classic Harold and Maude and shares a kinship to that film, it deals with a morose teenager who is detached from his world and who finds a connection in an unlikely friendship and whilst it doesn’t quite avoid all the trappings of the high school movie (what film could when it is a genre that has been satirised over and over again), it averts enough to feel sharp, disarming and mature. And any film that shows love for Harold and Maude will always be a triumph to me.