“ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL” — ★★★★ — Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Moolly Shannon, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman; PG-13 (sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements); Broadway
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a film that connects. It's a fantastic blend of personality and story that transcends its high-school setting, and speaks volumes on the nature of friendship.
Me is Greg (Thomas Mann), a clever teenager who has decided the key to surviving high school — and life in general — is to be casual acquaintances with everyone, avoiding serious friendships and hiding his emotions behind a wall of quick one-liners. He lives in Pittsburgh with his eccentric sociology professor father (Nick Offerman) and meddling mother (Connie Britton).
Earl (RJ Cyler) is Greg’s best friend, but since Greg is Greg, their relationship is classified as co-workers. They’ve known each other since kindergarten and have channeled a mutual love of film into a series of amateur parodies of various classics (i.e., “2:48pm Cowboy” instead of “Midnight Cowboy”).
The Dying Girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a senior who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. She lives with her alcoholic single mother Denise (Molly Shannon). When word of Rachel’s cancer reaches Greg’s mother, she nags him into stopping by for a sympathy playdate, and Greg gets his first chance at a real friendship as Rachel gets what could be her last.
Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, “Me and Earl” was featured at Sundance earlier this year, and netted a Grand Jury Award among its rave reviews.
The praise is well-deserved.
“Me and Earl” explodes with personality, living right on the border between reality and Greg’s active imagination. Creative camerawork for the live action shots is often interjected with moments of stop-motion animation, such as in a running gag where a moose stomps on a Claymation squirrel every time Greg encounters an attractive girl named Madison (Katherine C. Hughes).
Colorful characters dot the landscape of the film. In addition to Greg’s zany parents, Jon Bernthal is fantastic as Mr. McCarthy, the cool history teacher who lets Greg and Earl watch art house movies in his office, so they don’t have to eat lunch in the cafeteria.
Other supporting characters like the Goth Scott (Matt Bennett) and Ill Phil the drug dealer (Masam Holden) are little more than two-dimensional punch lines, but they still fit in nicely with the quirky tone of the film.
Scored with a moody Brian Eno-heavy soundtrack and punctuated by the kind of snarky humor that tries to hide the sincerity of the joker, “Me and Earl” also benefits from a script that allows its characters to display wisdom beyond their years while still stumbling on their immaturity.
In spite of its PG-13 rating and surreal tone, viewers should know that “Me and Earl” is a warts-and-all treatment of the modern high school experience. There isn’t much in terms of violence or actual sexual content, but some audiences might struggle with the vulgar dialogue and profanity. There is also some drug content that is played for laughs.
“Me and Earl” has been getting comparisons to last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars” for being another adaptation of a young adult book about cancer, and even the 2009 film “500 Days (of Summer)” for being a nontraditional romantic comedy. The comparisons may have merit, but “Me and Earl” is its own film.
Some may be turned off by the abundance of quirkiness director Alphonso Gomez-Rejon uses to tell the story, and others may roll their eyes at the idealized hipster worlds Greg and Rachel live in. But no matter how you feel about its excesses, “Me and Earl” has a powerful, moving and aching heart at its center. It’s not a textbook “coming of age” film, but it is a magnificent essay on the nature and value of friendship.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is rated PG-13 for profanity and vulgar dialogue, including the use of the F-word.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.