Saturday movie review: Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

The simple act of reaching out to make a friend, reluctantly or not, can change lives. That's the bottom-line takeaway I got from the coming-of-age dramedy ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. The film is based on the 2012 novel written by Jesse Andrews and was a standout at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

me and earl and the dying girl

Though rather comedic throughout, the themes of ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL are anything but humorous in themselves. A high-school senior dealing with leukemia. Another senior whose self-loathing prevents him from bonding with others. Fitting in at high school. Getting into college. Letting go of a child—as the young adult anticipates leaving for college... or faces dying.

Strong, serious stuff. Yet there's far more laughter than tears (from the actors as well as the audience) in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. And there's far more truth and authenticity than moviegoers typically get from films focusing on teenagers.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is the story of three teenagers, in particular. The "me" in the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), a student cynical beyond his years. Earl (RJ Cyler) is Greg's sort-of friend since kindergarten. Greg labels Earl a "coworker" not a friend despite their years spent together creating goofy homemade films, because Greg has intimacy issues of deep degrees. The dying girl is Rachel (luminescent Olivia Cook).

Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia, and Greg's mom (subtly comedic Connie Britton) demands he re-kindle his friendship with Rachel despite the two not interacting with one another since kindergarten. Greg initially reaches out to Rachel half-heartedly, bowing to Mom's demands. Soon, though, he, Earl, and Rachel are all in, connecting wholeheartedly. Which changes all three in unexpected ways.

As in real life, such things don't take place in a vacuum. Parents, teachers, and fellow students are affected as well. Comic relief comes in part courtesy the brilliant casting of those secondary characters: Molly Shannon as Rachel's mom, Connie Britton and (hilariously nutty) Nick Offerman as Greg's parents, plus a slew of silly students played by Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, and Masam. (Bonus: Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead plays a pivotal teacher.)

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon deftly, beautifully balanced the performances. Humor never diluted the hard, heart-hitting moments, just softened the blows. On the other end of the spectrum, humor highlighted the absurdity of adolescent madness and moments we've all lived through. Such shared experiences, I think, are one of the reasons coming-of-age films resonate with those of us decades beyond adolescence.

In each of the relationships in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL there seemed a special sense of intimacy and connectedness. Even in those that were portrayed as contentious. The characters cared about one another in a manner that goes beyond what screenwriter/author Andrews could have put on the page. Which must be a direct result of the tone director Gomez-Rejon's created on the film's set. The director encouraged a mutual respect and creative synchronicity between all involved, according to Thomas Mann (Greg) in the Q&A with the director and cast members following the screening I attended.

me and earl and the dying girl denver q&a 

"Molly Shannon called it 'arts and crafts camp,'" Gomez-Rejon said. Authenticity came easily, he added. "Everyone's in it for the right reasons. They believe in the story."

This interview with Gomez-Rejon provides loads more on the director's creative process and thoughts:

Though coming-of-age films are one of my favorite genres, being far removed from high-school years may be why the beginning scenes weren't as laugh-out-loud funny to me—nor my fellow screeners, Brianna and Jim—as younger viewers in the audience found them. Which made for a slow and questionable start. It didn't take long, though, for me to connect with the unique film and be fully intrigued and entertained through to its end.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements) opened in limited theaters yesterday, June 12, with more cities to be added. Find out more on the film's official website.

Disclosure: I had the opportunity to attend a free screening of this film, courtesy the studio; opinions are, as always, my own.