“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined . . . to strengthen each other . . . to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories” — George Eliot
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (“The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) coming-of-age comedy/drama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is both very funny and very sad, full of life’s pain but also reminding us of its joy. Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews who also wrote the screenplay, it is a sweet, smartly written film that always retains a human quality that we can relate to. Though its story of teenage alienation and terminal illness may sound like a dozen other genre films, its appealing freshness and rejection of maudlin sentimentality sets it apart from the rest.
Greg, (Thomas Mann, “Project X”), who narrates the film, is a shy high school student with a shaky self-image. Self-absorbed and preferring not to be noticed, he remains aloof while separating people into groups and cliques, not antagonistic to any, just personally uninvolved. Perhaps too stereotypically from the poorer side of town, his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler, “Second Chances”) is an African-American boy he has known since kindergarten but who he introduces to others as his “co-worker,” the word “friend” having too many connotations for Greg who is afraid of being rejected by those close to him. His fear of intimacy may be a product of his relationship with his overbearing parents, mom (Connie Britton, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) and dad (Nick Offerman, “Danny Collins”).
Dad is a well-traveled Sociology professor with a predilection for exotic foods which his family are forced to share and a love of foreign and classic films. Instead of watching Disney and other animated films as children, Greg and Earl have grown up watching such films as “Breathless,” “Tales of Hoffman,” and Herzog’s “Burden of Dreams” (Greg’s imitation of Werner Herzog is one of the funniest bits in the film). The two have made over forty films together, parodying famous films using funny titles such as “2:48 P.M. Cowboy,” “Pooping Tom,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Monorash,” and “Senior Citizen Cane.”
The centerpiece of the film, however, is Greg’s relationship with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke, “The Quiet Ones”), a fellow student who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Pigeonholed by Greg as belonging to the Upper-Middle Class Jewish Senior Girl Sub-Clique 2A, their friendship begins on a rocky note when he admits that he is not hanging out with her out of pity but because his mom forced him into it. A deep bond is forged, however, and their relationship unfolds naturally with humor and affection in spite of its unpleasant beginning and the possibility of its sudden end.
Though not portrayed in an overtly physical way, their friendship is one that is truly caring in spite of the emotional and physical toll of Rachel’s chemotherapy, something I’m familiar with since my wife has been going through it. Earl also provides some relief by sharing some of their films with her which, at least temporarily, keeps her mind away from her illness. Two supporting roles deserve mention. Molly Shannon (“Life after Beth”) is appealing though a bit over-the top as Rachel’s mom Denise, while Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) is perfect as Mr. McCarthy, a history teacher who allows Greg and Earl to escape the insanity of the school lunchroom and use his office to watch movies and talk about life.
In a very moving sequence, McCarthy shares his personal experience of losing someone close, a story that Gomez-Rejon eventually uses to great advantage. Shot by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (“Oldboy”), on a quirkiness scale of one to ten, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl registers a high eight with a lot of Wes Anderson-type features such as sight gags, amusing intertitles, animated sequences, and innovative camerawork, but on the scale that measures honesty and sincerity in films, it is off the charts. Probing deeper than most films of its kind, it forges genuine, three-dimensional characters who will make their way into your heart and never leave.