I feel like this is a film I should’ve loved and I have no doubt many will end up loving this movie in a way I couldn’t. The storyline of the film sounds like the potential for a sweet coming of age drama for cinephiles. As a teen and a cinephile, there was a possibility for something here that could’ve affected me on a deeper level like Boyhood or Moonrise Kingdom. There’s at least something clever and ambitious that could’ve been made here that goes beyond the other teen cancer dramas like The Fault in our Stars and so on. Ironically, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ends up being an empty (albeit somewhat funny) experience that fails to go beyond the stereotypes and clichés it promises to break throughout.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is an awkward high school student who finds himself free from any social group at his school. Instead, he and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) spend their time making these short parodies of classic movies. Sockwork Orange, Pooping Tom and 2:48 PM Cowboy are just of a few of the names they have made up for their projects. A girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) at Greg’s school has cancer so his mom forces him to go and hang out with her. Out of there first awkward meeting grows a surprising friendship between the two of them. When Rachel’s treatment takes a turn for the worse, Greg and Earl decide to make a movie about her.
From what I’ve said so far, it definitely seems like something you’ve seen before, whether it’s the teen cancer aspect of The Fault in our Stars or the remaking of classic movies aspect of Be Kind, Rewind. What makes the movie work so well for the first half is its sense of humor and its lack of effort in making anything seem too serious. The movie acknowledges the clichés of the movie and goes out of its way to mock them and promise that it isn’t going to be that type of movie.
Things like title cards that say Day 1 of doomed relationship and a narration from Greg that tells you how this is going to be a different film makes you certain that this is all leading to something that is new and unseen before, the film will be to cancer dramas what Cabin in the Woods was to horror films. And while the film is doing this riff, it’s actually pretty hilarious. These moments when the film is playing for laughs feel energetic and witty and they’re packed with a lot of clever characters like Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) and his history teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), as well as some fun spoofs of classic films. They seem to make fun of and go beyond these clichés you would expect and these areas felt so sarcastic and critical in a way I’ve never seen a movie like this do before.
Sadly, this is one of those films that starts off with so much energy and originality and slowly loses it as the movie goes on. In the 3rd act, the movie takes this sharp turn for the worst as it begins to present to you all of these terrible clichés that you’ve seen before in movies. We get this forced third act break up where Greg stops seeing Rachel. He then gets into this unneeded, unnecessary fight with Earl that doesn’t pay off. We also get scenes where Greg is yelling at his mom and Mr. McCarthy. We get this lazy, uninspired scene four times in a row and by that point; there isn’t any sincerity to what they’re doing. The movie ends up doing the exact thing it’s promised to go beyond throughout it. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t even feel well written or genuine. The “powerful” moments here are underwritten and lack the charm and effort that even The Fault in our Stars put into these scenes.
That’s not the only thing the movie lies to the audience about. One of my biggest problems with the movie relates to a gigantic spoiler so I’ll try to keep it as vague as possible. The movie is consistently telling you that it’s not going to end the way you think it’s going to end, and then it ends the way you think it’s going to end and it turns out that Greg’s been lying to you the whole time. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tried to explain it in the Q&A but it was too late at that point. Doing this is such a cop out, you’re being blatantly dishonest to your audience and you’re obviously doing it to get a reaction out of them when it does end up happening. This ends up ruining what should be this touching and beautiful scene at the end between Greg and Rachel. It’s astonishing, this movie does so much to make you feel that it’s funnier and more honest than those other teen cancer dramas and when you finally trust it, it ruins its promise and proceeds to perform these clichés in a way that’s repetitive and manipulative as possible.
On a side note, one thing about this movie that’s great is that regardless of quality, this is one of those movies that feels like the start of potential with its director and its cast. The director is clearly inspired here by the filmmaking techniques of numerous directors. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon still manages to breathe some originality and energy into the film in terms of some great editing and some beautiful cinematography. He even got Brian Eno for the fantastic soundtrack to the movie. Thomas Mann does a great job playing Greg and it’s a realistic performance of a teenager going through this uncomfortable and strange part of his life. My favorite performance in the film would probably end up go to RJ Cyler as Earl. He is the most comedic of any of the characters and when the movie tries to go really serious, he’s one of the only ones who seemed to pull it off successfully. Olivia Cooke is also worth mentioning as Rachel, she has some nice chemistry with Greg and she makes of this character that could’ve really quickly become this walking stereotype. I think the young director and his young cast will all most likely be moving on to something superior to this in the years to come.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features strong performances, good direction and sense of humor in the first two acts that makes it fun to watch at first. Sadly, the film tries to be this bold, knowing departure from dramas about teens with cancer and it doesn’t pay off into something that feels stronger or any better than those films. It’s like if a snarky teenager decided to join a football game after spending an hour making fun of it from the bleachers. Ironically, I’d probably prefer The Fault in Our Stars over this movie because at least that film knew what type of movie it was but still managed to be consistent and surprisingly touching by the end. This film spends so much time mocking the clichés of a film like that that when it asks you to go along with it as it performs these clichés, it feels really unauthentic and lazy.
Release Date: 6/12/2015
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Mann, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Molly Shannon, Matt Bennett and RJ Cyler
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenplay by: Jesse Andrews
Based on the novel by: Jesse Andrews