Are you tired of movies about young adults discovering who they are through quirky interactions with people they didn’t know? How about ones about said young adults with an illness, who learn powerful life lessons while watching each other die? Well, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl certainly thinks you are, and is determined to deliver something new within the tropes of a genre that for many is starting to wear a little thin. Yes, it’s time for the cynical rebel to swoop in and save us from the more earnest entries in this genre, or at least, that’s the hope. After all, you never know what’s going to happen on this job.
The aforementioned ‘Me’ is named Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s an antisocial high school senior who’s determined to get through his last year of school by continuing to be causal acquaintances with every social group, without actually committing to any serious friendships. The closest thing Greg has to true companionship is with his “coworker” Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes low budget parodies of the classic films they both love. However, Greg’s delicate house of cards is blown over when his mother and father (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) force him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow student who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. While initially reluctant, Greg finds some solace in hanging out with Rachel, and takes it upon himself after a little pushing to make a movie for her before her time is done.
The greatest joy of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is how self-aware it is of what we’re seeing. Through narration, Greg constantly re-assures us that we are not getting yet another sappy romantic story like the ones we’ve seen a million times before. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s playful direction constantly toys with our expectations, tricking us into thinking we’re seeing something contrived only to pull the rug out and take a left turn instead of a right. This inventive style keeps the film consistently engaging, as it respects that we the audience have become just as cynical and detached to these kind of stories as Greg has. This is where most of the movie’s best humor comes in, as the film often opts for a satirical jab rather then a sappy barb at the heart strings.
Speaking of Greg, Thomas Mann is an absolute revelation here. A lot of the time when actors portray socially anxious characters, especially in the case of teenagers, they’ll push it to such an extreme degree that it can’t help but come across as a stereotype. Mann beautifully avoids this by blending Greg’s detachment with his biting sense of humor. He’s not necessarily somebody who cannot interact with people, he simply hates it so much that it drives him to the point of extreme bluntness. He’s a bit of an uppity ass at times, but Mann ensures that he’s also completely human, never loosing likability. All of the other performers, especially Cooke, are equally strong. Mining familiar ground from her also terminally ill character on Bates Motel, Cooke gradually breaks down Rachel’s spunky spirit into somebody who breaks the optimistic ideals that she tries to impose on Greg. It’s a heart breaker of a turn that will surely garner her greater attention. Cyler is given a more thinly drawn character in Earl, who basically stands as comic relief, but he milks that for all it’s worth. Meanwhile, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal and Molly Shannon populate the world with supporting characters that are either perfectly weird, or completely earnest.
Even with all of these really strong pieces, there are some moments in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that ultimately betray the potential of what they’re going for. By the end of the movie, the sharp bite from before takes a back-seat to some more conventional heart string tugging that feels a little bit out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie. Also, while the film making aspect of the story is one of the most fun tricks in the hat, the creative process of making Rachel’s movie should have been focused on a little more. There could have been some really interesting moments as Greg and Earl try to figure out how to extract some emotion that doesn’t feel forced out of this project (much like the filmmakers themselves are trying to do) but ultimately it just gets glossed over leading to a disappointing final product that has nearly zero explanation as to why Greg decided to choose the images that he did.
While it ultimately undercuts itself a bit in the final stretch, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a spectacularly entertaining movie up until then. It understands that it’s audience has grown weary of the story it’s trying to tell, and as such makes it’s own story feel that much more authentic by comparison. Mann, Cooke, Cyler and Gomez-Rejon certainly have bright futures ahead of them, and something tells me even this isn’t the absolute best they are capable of, even if it is pretty damn good. All I can say is, Paper Towns, you’d better bring it.