It’s going to be hard for this one to avoid comparisons to John Green’s recent entry in the ‘Sick-Lit’ genre, though they begin to wear thin beyond the central ailment, the big C. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also not remotely concerned with the perspective of the dying girl (her name’s Rachel, by the way), using her largely as a prop for a detached high-school cucumber to find his inner mushy-gushy, though that terrible-sounding dynamic ends up being used to the film’s advantage.
Greg Gaines is an awkward, self-loathing teenager trying to make his way through senior year without conforming to a label. It isn’t so much a matter of wanting to rebel as it is wanting to un-belong so he doesn’t risk losing what friends he might make along the way, even though there doesn’t seem to be much precedent for it. The film deals with the same detachment and purposelessness as so many other modern high school films, something most certainly reflective of a detached generation, though it’s also something that eventually has to squeeze itself out of the same narrative tight spots. The main character inevitably learns to care about someone or find a purpose, but up until that point they’re just sort of wandering about making mouthy quips while in the vicinity of a girl unless they’re given something else to do. The Spectacular Now overcomes this hurdle by having Sutter Keely search for his father. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift does it by having Sean Boswell drift in Tokyo. And Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t do it at all, but that’s also sort of the point.
The film doesn’t just refuse to give Greg anything to do beyond hanging out with a sick girl, he’s essentially forced into it by his mother, and by proxy, the narrative. It does give itself a convenient out when it comes to this oddity, structuring itself as Greg’s college admission essay a year or so down the road, down to scene captions along the lines of "The Thing That Happened After The Other Thing." I’m paraphrasing, though I’m probably not too far off. Both Greg and the film want you to know just how much he doesn’t care about anything. Even though the reasons he’s forced to hang out with Rachel upon her diagnosis don’t seem to make much sense, it’s one of those weird lapses in logic that ceases to matter by the time the credits roll, though I do wish there was more of an effort to be narratively cohesive.
To talk about why the film just about works despite itself would require spoiling it, though I’m not sure you can really spoil a movie about a girl diagnosed with Leukemia told from the perspective of a guy who needs to be shocked into caring. The film isn’t is a romance story in the slightest, which is refreshing as far as teen movies of this sort go, but we’re so used to assuming otherwise that Greg has to put up constant disclaimers that their relationship is strictly platonic. And he isn’t lying about that. There’s no bait-and-switch, and no fairytale ending. If anything, the film’s major reversal comes in the form of not really giving Rachel much of a personality or much to do beyond getting weaker, and then killing her off despite saying it wouldn’t, and THEN giving her a narrative purpose during the film’s closing minutes. It’s an interesting approach, one that does lead to a great closing scene, but whether or not it works as a whole is a different matter.
The other major characters in the film are Greg’s childhood friend and "co-worker" Earl, and their tattooed, tough guy History teacher played by Jon Bernthal. Greg and Earl spend their lunches with Bernthal’s Mr. McCarthy, and all three of them seem like they’re in competition to see who can be the most detached. Earl doesn’t do or say all that much unless it’s a comment about girls’ breasts, and he seems like the perfect kind of friend for a guy like Greg, although he often goes behind his back and acts on his behalf and tells people things he shouldn’t, almost forcing Greg to do the things he’s too scared to do. McCarthy, on the other hand, while no doubt entertaining, doesn’t really have a purpose until Greg finally needs to confront the reality that his new friend is going to die. McCarthy’s story about learning new things about his father after he had passed is what eventually opens Greg up to the idea that death isn’t as final as it seems, which in turn leads to a touching final scene of him discovering all the little details he hadn’t noticed about Rachel’s bedroom despite having spent six months by her side. It’s a lovely message to walk away with, though the film takes a very long time to actually get anywhere near it.
We don’t get to know Rachel because Greg doesn’t get to know Rachel, though Olivia Cooke’s silent charm makes her fun to spend time with regardless. The best scenes in the film are the ones where she takes center stage, not just because Cooke is such a joy to watch, but because it finally starts to feel like the story has found some sort of definite purpose. For the majority of its runtime, the film has an undeniable visual energy, constantly panning and tracking and tilting, and even going in to the occasional cutaway that’s animated in stop-motion, and while there are a couple of scenes involving Greg’s parents that are ingeniously staged, the kinetic camera and all its energy and panache feel wasted. There’s rarely a reason for any of the excited movements, nor is there a coherent visual style to justify them. The film jumps between smooth motions and shaky hand-held on a whim, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the first half involves nothing more than Greg talking about himself. The few times he isn’t talking about himself, he’s walking somewhere while the narrator talks about him, which would be charming if he wasn’t also narrating the film.
The Rachel-centric scenes are also the ones where director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon stops trying to be Wes Anderson. That sounds like an awfully shallow comparison, but it’s unavoidable both in terms of the way he moves his camera despite lacking Anderson’s eye for depth (and his lovely children’s picture-book aesthetic) as well the way he tries to make his characters intriguing by having them be withholding, something that Anderson is adept at because he’s able to contextualize it. All Gomez-Rejon is able to do is have Greg tell his mother to stop going through his stuff. Like I said, the film is at its best when it isn’t all about Greg, which is rarely. The film does a stylistic 180 when Rachel finally gets her turn, employing long, still takes and allowing Olivia Cooke to open up bit by bit as the camera, the music and the environment all begin to match Rachel’s bleak outlook and her physical weakness. Greg is still, unfortunately, central to these scenes, but it’s the closest the film comes to really hitting hard, and the stillness works twice as well because of how accustomed the rest of it lets us get to energetic motion. But alas, none of that motion ever amounts to anything moving.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is most certainly a charming watch, even though some of the minor characters made me want to swallow my fist. There's chuckles to be had, mostly from the titular characters' parody films and their eccentric parents. What little time we’re allowed to spend with Rachel is most definitely worthwhile, though it doesn’t bode well that the least interesting thing about the film is the stock character that occupies 100% of its running time. I’ll admit, I did walk out of the theatre feeling like I needed a hug, but I wonder if that’s because the final moments made me value my friends a little more, or because the rest of the film kept me at arm’s length.
This review is based on an NYU Alumni screening.