The latest in a series of young adult novels adapted for the screen and the second to feature a central character with a cancer diagnosis after The Fault in our Stars, this bittersweet teen comedy from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon scored big at the Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. It is not surprising that the film struck a chord because Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is, despite the tragedy to which the title alludes, a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of teen friendship. There is no romance to be found here, it is simply a story about three young people whose friendship is tested under the most trying of circumstances. More than that though, it is a film that never tries to construct any of the young people as anything more than typical. The way they react to the circumstances of their lives is understandable and the film, which was adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own novel, very successfully straddles the line between comedy and drama without ever seeming manipulative. It is irreverent, intense, sarcastic, sad and silly – sometimes all at the same time – but it somehow works as a genuinely engaging treatise on friendship, mortality, the fear of intimacy and the expectations and uncertainties of post-school life.
The “me” of the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), a somewhat detached teenager who has cultivated his invisibility at school by acquainting himself with all of the myriad sub-cultures and cliques without actually joining any of them, preferring to spend his lunch breaks watching movies with Earl (RJ Cyler) in the office of their history teacher. Although the two have been friends since childhood, Greg refuses to acknowledge the nature of the relationship, referring to Earl as his co-worker, a reference to the myriad absurdist lo-fi movie spoofs they have produced together, 47 of which appear throughout the film apparently, although I didn’t count them so I can neither confirm nor deny such claims. However, I can attest that these films, with titles such as 2:48pm Cowboy, Senior Citizen Kane and Anatomy of a Burger are terrifically entertaining in their own right despite their utter lack of sophistication. It is a shared love of cinema that drives both their creative output and their friendship.
When classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with cancer, Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) insists that he make an effort to spend time with her. Despite hardly knowing Rachel, Greg finds himself begging her to let him hang out just once to placate his mother. Sure enough, a friendship starts to blossom as Greg finds himself connecting emotionally with somebody for the first time. Rachel possesses a doomed resignation about her fate, watching those around struggle with her diagnosis. Earl’s reaction is what you might expect from a teenage boy, asking Greg on several occasions whether he has seen Rachel’s ‘titties’. Whilst Earl refuses to pander to Rachel’s illness in the way that he treats her, he still demonstrates more understanding of what is at stake than Greg does. As the inevitability of her condition looms, Earl and Greg decide to make a film for Rachel, the first time they have had to make something for somebody other than themselves.
Whilst it all sounds very bleak and sombre, there are a lot of laughs to be had courtesy of the titular trio and an array of supporting characters, including Rachel’s mother Denise (Molly Shannon), who relies on a never-ending glass of wine to help her cope. Whilst all three leads are fine, it is Cooke who really shines as Rachel, a young woman resigned to her fate who does not want to be seen as a victim. Jon Bernthal (TV’s The Walking Dead) is great as teacher/mentor Mr McCarthy, while Katherine Hughes also impresses as Madison. In fact the only bum note is, surprisingly, Nick Offerman as Greg’s dad, a character who seems quirky for quirk’s sake and just doesn’t present as believable or particularly interesting. With an aesthetic akin to the works of Wes Anderson, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has much to enjoy. The ending is emotional without being overwrought and Gomez-Rejon, who started as a personal assistant to the likes of Scorsese and Inarritu before cutting his directorial teeth in television, has created a prescient teen comedy-drama that is both heartfelt and hilarious.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in Brisbane on September 3.