Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) Film Review, a film directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon.
“I have no idea how to tell this story. I don’t even know how to start it.”
That’s the opening line of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, spoken by our lead character Greg, an awkward high school kid whose only real desire is to not be noticed at all. Greg is a kid who doesn’t have a ton of friends (and refers to his only real friend as his “co-worker”), stemming from his issues with his parents and his lack of confidence in himself. That’s not me reading subtext from the film, because there is literally a scene in which a character describes Greg in this way. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has no faith in its audience to follow along; it instead bends over backwards to make sure they get it.
It’s going to sound like I dislike this film, but really, it’s a competently put-together piece with some creative moments and some genuinely funny scenes. Its problems stem from its screenplay and its two leading male actors (the titular “Me and Earl”). Everything in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays as if it is specifically calculated to be the kind of independent Sundance movie that critics go nuts over: it’s main character feels lost, there’s a tragic story of a girl with cancer, there’s a ton of quirky humor, and there are a lot of references to cinematic classics.
Greg and Earl are amateur filmmakers with a love for arthouse movies, and they spend their free time making low-rent parodies of their favorites, like Pooping Tom, Eyes Wide Butt, and A Sockwork Orange. The obvious comparison here is Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, though in that film the homemade remakes drive the narrative. Here, they act as another piece of quirk slapped onto a movie that’s already brimming with it. As much as I enjoy a good Apocalypse Now reference, the homemade movies felt like pandering to a critical audience in the worst way.
Thomas Mann and Ronald Cyler II play Greg and Earl, respectively. Cyler is given very little to do, to the point where you begin to wonder why Earl’s name is even in the title. Mann’s performance, combined with the screenplay’s insistence on skewing everything with a post-ironic, hipster form of sincerity, make Greg an insufferable character for much of the film’s running time. He improves a bit towards the end, but by that point, it’s too little, too late.
Olivia Cooke fares much better as Rachel, the dying girl. Her character seems to be in a similar place as Greg; at the very least, we rarely see her with any other friends, and no one else appears to visit her. The difference is that Cooke is simply likeable, and portrays Rachel with requisite amounts of humor and sadness. Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon are also highlights of the film, adding to the film’s quirky nature while not going too over-the-top.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed last year’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake, applies himself well here, evoking Wes Anderson at times in the framing of his scenes. Greg’s unreliable narration throughout the film doesn’t help matters, though, and in fact the film might be significantly improved if his voiceover was removed entirely. If you have no idea how to tell this story, Greg, maybe you shouldn’t be the one telling it in the first place.
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