Dying to be seen7/1/2015
It can be easy to fault “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” for its non-titular characters. Everyone of them is an over-earnest caricature of themselves. Molly Shannon plays a long-suffering, heavy-drinking single mom who is going through a tough time and gets through it by flirting with the high school boys who come to her door. Jon Bernthal is a heavily tattooed history teacher who watches foreign films in his office and has his own catch-phrase (“respect the research!”) and Nick Offerman is the overly liberal sociology professor who roams the house in his pajamas eating pig’s feet and watercress. Even the high school students are portrayed as extreme versions of all the common kid-stereotypes, outside of Me (Greg, played by Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and the Dying Girl (Rachel, played beautifully by Olivia Cooke).
But during the film’s two-hour run time, you get to know and understand the characters, especially Greg, who serves as narrator, and that makes all the difference. Since Greg is the voice of the story, you come to realize that all the tertiary characters are presented through the lens that Greg sees them: a thin veil comprised of equal parts fear and contempt. The fact that Rachel and Earl are the only two people in the world whom Greg sees as they truly are makes the rest of the world appear as if it is tilt-shifted, with our three main characters at the center. Everyone who is not expressly mentioned in the title is a prop in Greg’s story.
The story centers around the fact that Rachel is, in fact, a dying girl. In the film’s first 10 minutes, Rachel is diagnosed with cancer, and Greg’s mother, feeling that her emotionally detached, soon-to-be-graduated son could use a good deed in his life, forces him to go spend time with Rachel in an effort to boost her spirits.
It is not something that comes to Greg easily. He has, as the opening sequence shows us, spent his four years of high school cultivating a personality that makes no waves in exchange for any lasting connections. His only real friend (a word Greg eschews in lieu of “co-worker”) is Earl, whom Greg has known since early childhood, and with whom Greg has made a series of ingenious parody films with titles like “Eyes Wide Butt” and “A Box of Lips, Wow.”
Greg is self-loathing enough to have never shown the films to anyone, convinced they are all terrible. But when Rachel asks Earl if she can see them, he loans her one without consulting Greg. The move serves to alienate the pair, and the fact that Rachel loves the films and continues to ask for more quietly eats Greg up inside, though he continually agrees.
Up to this point, the film is good. There are some clever bits, and Cooke really is fantastic as Rachel. But it is in the film’s third act that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” makes the jump from good to something special. The film contains some machinations that alter viewers’ expectations just enough as to give the last 20 minutes genuine impact. What the film finishes up with is touching, heartfelt cinema. “Me and Earl…” may start off as a self-referential, vaguely twee, self-consciously quirky indie film, but it finishes as something beautiful and worthwhile. CV