At this year’s Sundance, I skipped Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because, let’s be honest, it’s not a great title. I took in Noah Baumbach’s ruthlessly silly Mistress America instead with Earl playing just a screen over. Had I known it would go on to a standing ovation and stealing US Grand Jury and Dramatic Audience Awards at the fest, I probably would have hung around. Since its premiere, M+E+DG has gone on to become an audience favorite and critical darling throughout the territories its played, holding onto its 100% Rotten Tomato score. Having said that, I still wouldn’t suggest plopping “Dying Girl” into any future movie titles. Still a major turnoff.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl being this year’s angsty ‘teens with cancer’ remix – don’t know why that’s a perenial occasion but, alas, it appears to be – you can expect a picnic of sniffles with audience members transformed into snotty basketcases by curtain call. In its meaningful melodramatic, M+E+DG is every bit as sad as The Fault in Our Stars without the cookie cutter-shaped, ruthless emotional gutting of the later. Rather than suck off tear ducts like a mynock off the Falcon, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is genuine with his tragedy and never gleeful about his emotional blood letting. That being said, wahhhhhhhhhh!
The story, adapted from Jesse Andrews’ lauded young-adult novel of the same name, unfolds in avuncular fashion, never too downtrodden in its teenage melancholia and partitioned by cutesy chapter breaks, e.g. “Day One of Our Doomed Friendship”. Following a friendship that develops between high school wallflower Greg and eponymous dying girl Rachel (played to heartbreaking aplomb by Olivia Cooke), M+E+DY charters a course down narrow straights between offbeat but spirited humor and genuine dramatic turmoil. Like a certain medical leaf, the doomy calamity is rolled tight alongside unexpected playfulness and a dash of hapless goofiness. Spark it up and you won’t know quite what to feel.
And this is pretty much where we find Greg (Thomas Mann), a self-imposed outsider who’s so afraid of being labeled this, that or the other that he’s decided to cast himself out from social cliques entirely. But that’s not to say he’s unpopular. He’s most assuredly not; he’s actually managed a hazy peace with almost every social group on campus, from the Yugioh card-players to the amateur rappers. No matter, his social insecurities get the best of him. His social insecurities have developed to the point where he refers to Earl (R.J. Cyler) as his co-worker rather than his friend. “Friend” just comes with too much baggage.
When Rachel falls ill (leukemia, that fickle sonabitch) Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) pesters him into befriending her. You know, cuz cancer. Awkwardness ensues. And why wouldn’t it? These forced, neighborly friendships are exactly the type of prescribed interaction that teenager can’t wait to leave home to avoid.
At first, their interactions are hollow, with Greg playing goon and Rachel cracking half-grins at his dunce act. After almost no time, their friendship deepens into a true beast of uncommon compassion and the search for empathy. But, as Greg’s narration tells us time and time again, this is no love story. Then again, his narration proves unreliable on more than one occasion. This is part and parcel about what makes Greg an interesting character – that and Mann’s deadpan portrayal – our hesitancy to actually believe him. Such intrigue is extended to the picture itself. We’re never quite sure when to take something at face value and when to question what lies beneath. M+E+DY tries to have its cake and eat it too and, for the most part, it does.
Though Rachel pushes Greg to be the man he should be – by encouraging him to push aside his insecurities and go to college, lest the infinite joke that is life be on him – their relationship is as Platonic as brother and sister (outside of Westeros.) And yet, what develops between them is still sickeningly soulful and sweet; a somber rhythm that informs the tone and transports us directly into the film’s steady, heavy heartbeat.
Greg and Earl being amateur directors since their youth – with their specialty being a Be Kind Rewind-style remaking of classics – they’re asked by Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) to make a tribute video for Rachel. In its not-quite-navel-gazing cinephilia, M+E+DY is able to slip in a bevy of understated nods to film history that the snobbish and general audiences will enjoy alike. And this is what makes the whole thing run as smooth as a KY-Jelly-slide: it’s able to be something to everyone. In terms of their fated remakes, Kubrick chalks up two points with A Sockwork Orange alongside Eyes Wide Butt. You get the picture.
The film encounters a bit of an issue with secondary character Madison, which I’ve deemed “the Madison problem”. She’s a walking, talking MacGuffin; the pretty, nice, considerate popular girl who’s close friends with everyone when story convenience demands. Her asking a key character to prom day of prom (how did she not have a prom date day of prom? What is this Mormon Friend’s Retreat?) is one of the most egregious instances of when M+E+DY should have been dialed back but wasn’t.
That being said, Gomez-Rejon’s commingling of cutesy and downbeat pensive drama makes for a rich emotional experience and one capable of bedazzling in least expected places. The players are all on point – particularly a tatted-up Jon Bernthal as a steampunk history teacher – and the material comes packed with sorrowful beats sure to make a slate of stone at least consider letting one tear loose. So in summation: pack your tissue boxes, you’re in for a doozy.