Full disclosure: I attended this film without many expectations. Based on the sickeningly sweet trailer, I thought it would be another rehashing of the “dying girl in love” movie genre, which for some reason, was very popular in 2014. But, I was proved dead wrong. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was a nearly perfect film created with a mixture of heartbreak and humor.
The film focuses on Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler). Greg is the son of two college professors and doesn’t really want to have any friends. The only exception to the rule is Earl, a kid from the poorer side of town. Greg and Earl are obsessed with movies, and together they make parodies of classics like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Apocalypse Now.” Mann plays Greg perfectly, with a natural awkwardness, exuding slight anger, and confusion for the future. Cyler’s Earl provides some of the funniest dialogue in the movie. While there are parts when Earl almost falls into the “Magical Negro” trope by fixing Greg’s problems and helping him see his own flaws, he is ultimately a well-formed character with his own goals and interests.
The titular dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is diagnosed with leukemia and reluctantly becomes friends with Greg after he is forced to visit her at her home by his mother. Greg, Earl, and now Rachel become friends through their love of film. We learn more and more about sarcastic and quick-witted Rachel as she grows sicker and sicker, and we fall in love with her, even when Greg himself won’t admit how much he loves her. Cooke plays the role with both vulnerability and intelligence, her character Rachel always seeming to be up for anything even when she is too weak to get out of bed.
As Earl and Greg’s friendship with Rachel grows, they decide to make a film for her. It ends up not being as easy as they think from the start, and they soon find themselves arguing over Greg’s apprehension of establishing relationships. In their struggle to make the perfect film, they discover that while movies are important, they aren’t as important as making a loved one happy.
The film’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, made the best of the short twenty-four day shoot, filming everything on location in Pittsburgh, Penn. Gomez-Rejon’s attention to detail was amazing. Everything from the costume design to the mise-en-scène seemed to have a specific purpose. The scissors that Rachel displays on her wall represent her hobby of cutting books to make dioramas, and the parody films made by Greg and Earl echo the aesthetics of the original films from which they are inspired. This attention to detail is what makes the film so special.
The film also stands out due to its amazing secondary cast. Nick Offerman, of “Parks & Recreation,” played the character of Greg’s cat-loving, sociologist father, consistently serving as the voice of reason in his son’s life despite the fact he rarely leaves the house. Molly Shannon, of SNL fame, plays Rachel’s mother with a mixture of both bright energy and melancholy over the possibility of her daughter’s death.
Even though the development and nature of Rachel and Greg’s relationship is important to the film, it isn’t the main romance. That role belongs to the filmmaking. Greg and Earl love making movies, whether it’s to parody a film or to communicate feelings the characters have for each other. In the end, everything under Gomez-Rejon’s direction comes together to form a visually stunning tragicomedy you won’t be able to forget.
5 out of 5 stars
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures