Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) doesn’t like himself. And he’s not particularly melodramatic about it, nor is he actively depressed to the point where he might ever rashly attempt to act on it. He just doesn’t. Over time his self-loathing has become fact, something Greg knows about the world and manages with acceptance. Take his approach to high school, for instance. Over time, Greg has managed to curate a careful world around himself in which he doesn’t have to genuinely connect with anybody by making basic, passing connections with everybody. By breaking down his school’s caste system into neat categories, he’s able to concentrate on the few things that do hold some form of interest for him: inner commentaries on his supposedly lacking appearance, his in-depth passion for film, and particularly his filmmaking. Along with his “coworker” (friend, actually), the quietly sharp Earl (RJ Cyler), he makes punny knockoffs of famous films on a nothing budget.
But then, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t really about Greg’s personal melodramas. It is, but it’s also a film about Greg learning how little the world is really about him, something he has trouble seeing through the narcissistic fog that depression so frequently casts over otherwise bright people. That fog begins to lift when he and Earl befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke). But lest you think this is a manic pixie-type love story, the film isn’t in that business, something Greg makes clear in narration. The whole reason they eventually become friends is that Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) insists that Greg go hang out with the unfortunate girl from school that’s just been diagnosed with leukemia.
Let’s stop for a moment, in order to firmly establish something upfront: no, this isn’t just this year’s model of The Fault in Our Stars. For one, it’s a far superior film. For another, where that film vacillated between the aggressive wrenching of hearts and pithy comedy that came off more grating than cute, Dying Girl uses a similar setup to tell a story that’s earnest without having to relentlessly comment on its own earnestness. It simply is. And it might end up being divisive, because its emotions are on its sleeves, its observations on high school life are stylized, and it’s less a love story than a commentary on how, particularly in the teenage years, selfishness can take over even the best among us. But it’s also a film about a different kind of love, the kind shared between friends dealing with their own individual problems, together.
Neither Greg nor Earl really belong with anybody around them, but where Greg willfully positions himself as an unlovable loner, Earl’s just kind of along for the ride, partly out of a lifelong protective instinct for his friend who never calls him a friend. There’s an unspoken bond between them, but that’s Greg’s issue: all bonds are forever left unspoken. Rachel, then, makes for an interesting foil, in that she’s a perfect match for Greg inasmuch as he’s not the type to deliver long monologues about how sorry he is for her condition, since that’s the last thing she wants, but she also needs a kind of support that he’s not always built to offer.
It’s also, at times, hysterically funny. Greg and Earl’s films, which they’ve been making ever since Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) exposed them to Aguirre, The Wrath of God at an impressionable age, are brilliantly strange, a riff on Be Kind, Rewind that somehow tops that film in sincerity. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon offers portal after portal into Greg’s mind, with whimsical flourishes that never cross that oh-so-fine line into grating. While his approach recalls early Wes Anderson at points, with its pan-heavy visual punchlines and arch onscreen titles throughout, Dying Girl also employs a welcome stillness when it counts. Gomez-Rejon so clearly loves every single character in the film’s weird universe, from Rachel’s perpetually inebriated mom (Molly Shannon) to the bitter goth kid at school to the pensive, neck-tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) who offers Earl and Greg a safe space away from the lunchroom, that Dying Girl moves with affection in every visual gesture, every diorama-style cutaway, every lingering gaze on a laughing or pained face.
The film is also obsessed with movies, and in its universe of misfits it works miraculously. Greg delivers a hilarious Werner Herzog impression while attempting to write a personal letter for college, a poster of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine lectures him on how to tactfully engage with a cancer diagnosis, and the characters’ fixation with pop culture (film, specifically) keeps it humming along even as it eventually grows more pensive and panicked about the realities of mortality. Even when Greg and Rachel and Earl are left with nothing to say in the face of things they have no template for coping with, Dying Girl finds as much power in its silences as it does with its many rapid-fire jokes.
At the risk of offering a copout, Dying Girl is a film that either will or won’t work for many. Those weary of the “Sundance movie” may approach it with cynicism; it’s not as though “twee” isn’t an appropriate descriptor for what happens throughout. But for a film this sincere and affectionate, and one with some truly striking emotional sucker punches in tow, it’s an oversimplification. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl cuts right through the noise, telling a story about teenagers that’s both familiar and rare, capturing them in all their messiness and optimism and fear and soul. Films that look and feel sort of like this one have become as perennial as summer disaster movies or Oscar season biopics, but they’re rarely this moving, this warm, this resonant, and this flat-out wonderful.
Note: All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.