In theory, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon ‘s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl should not work as a great film. After all, we are but a year removed from another last cancer struck teen love story (Fault in our Stars) and everything on paper suggests its yet another sappy teen cliché fest. But here’s the kicker: Me & Earl does work and it does so with a level of maturity beyond its teenage centered years.
Adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews (author of the book of the same name) Me & Earl tells the story of insecure high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) who prefers to hide in the shadows never becoming too attached to any one group or person except for his “coworker” Earl (RJ Cyler) whom he makes parody films with. To his dismay he is forced to hang out with a classmate recently stricken with leukemia – Rachel (Olivia Cooke) at the request or rather demand of his mother (Connie Britton). The plot builds from there not straying far from the typical teenage dramedy before culminating in an all or nothing finale that hits home strong enough to make a positive impression.
Perhaps the most impressive feat Me & Earl accomplishes in its runtime is the ability to produce strong emotional reactions from the audience despite its relatively straightforward and predictable plot. Much of this stems from the collective efforts from Andrews script and the cast. Where most other films aimed at the teen demographic would have its characters deliver perfect dialogue with just the right amount of charm to win over the other characters (and by extension the audience) Me & Earl uses silences and understated dialogue to more accurately reflect what real-life conversations are like. This minimalistic style is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, relying on the viewer’s ability to pick up emotional cues within the muted lines/ awkward silences rather than explicitly telling you what to feel.
Such maturity in a teenage drama is rare and appreciated especially these days where hand holding the audience through scenes has become the norm. It is further displayed in the film’s many moments of comedy (a welcome aspect of the film I was not really expecting). The jokes found in Me & Earl are not ones where the punch line is immediately obvious employing instead many moments of cringe humor and Wes Anderson influenced quirk to break up otherwise tense scenes.
The script is complemented by Rejon’s direction incorporating changing mediums and interesting camera cuts. The usage of paper mache animation in a running gag is of note but perhaps Me and Earl’s finest moment occurs in the climactic scene where Greg shows off his final film to Rachel. Much of this scene is filmed with focus on the two characters watching the film instead of on the screen where the film is unfolding. Taking advantage of the absence of dialogue once again, all attention is placed on Rachel’s expression of awe as tears well up in her eyes. It doesn’t matter what Rachel is seeing, all that matters is that she is taken aback by Greg’s grand gesture.
Assisted by a strong score composed by Brian Eno, Me & Earl is able to hit many points on the emotional spectrum, often times putting a soft instrumental piece in an otherwise silent scene to drive the feelings of the audience. No more is this more poignant than in the film’s final act where next to nothing is said – only the score and facial expressions of the actors relaying everything.
What holds Me & Earl back from being an Oscar contender, however, is the self-absorbed nature of the story. Every character exists as a crutch to help Greg learn a lesson at the end of the film. Very little time, for example, is given to Earl or Rachel’s experience throughout the story giving their characters very little depth. Instead both act as tools in Greg’s journey offering sage advice or a wake call where necessary. This leads to a level of emptiness in the film as a whole because it depends heavily on the final act to be an emotional home run in order for the movie to work but thankfully it does.
Ultimately Me & Earl is very much an indie film (not that that’s in any way bad). I imagine if Wes Anderson were to make a teenage movie this would be what it would look like and anytime you can be favorably compared to a talent like Anderson I’d say you’ve done something right. The plot and concept is nothing new but the writing is solid with moments of good comedy, the actors are strong and the score is well done culminating in an experience that separates itself from the trappings of yet another teenage fairy tale romance film.
- Connie Britton is the ultimate TV/Movie Mom. If this performance didn’t convince you go watch Friday Night Lights