Every once in a while comes a film that is like a hurricane of fresh air. Films like these are ones that somehow balance heart, humor, and humanity to achieve a monumental film in a tight little package. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is this type of movie. It is a film that celebrates the classics, it celebrates life, and it celebrates growing up, all while being an enormously original, heartfelt film that manages to make you laugh while you are simultaneously wiping tears from your face. Simply put, it is one of the best and most original films in years.
Take one socially neutral senior in high school who has made an art out of being a part of every social group while never being an active participant, one “coworker” best friend who helps him make parodies of classic films, and one girl who is suffering from Leukemia. Add them all together, and you might find yourself in a mushy Fault in Our Stars-esque melodrama full of cliche dialogue and sappy romance. This is how Me and Earl and the Dying Girl proves you wrong from the start because this isn’t about romance; it’s a coming-of-age tale about going with life’s punches and playing your hand of cards no matter how shitty it is.
Featuring a stellar cast of up-and-coming actors and a few TV-favorites (Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, and Jon Bernthal), the performances are nothing less than superb. Greg (played by Thomas Mann,) the aforementioned senior, is forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after she is diagnosed with leukemia. Despite an awkward first couple times, the two strike up a friendship and we start to build expectations for a romance between them, but Greg constantly reminds us that this isn’t that type of story.
Mann, Cooke, and RJ Cyler (who plays the titular Earl) are three actors you need to be looking out for. All three of them give heartbreakingly real performances that always stay grounded, never straying towards melodramatic tendencies. Thanks to a wonderful script adapted from the novel of the same title by the author himself, Jesse Andrews, the dialogue feels realistic and simple. It never goes to lengths to sugarcoat the severity of the situation, but it also has enough sensibility to subvert the typical cancer-drama to never make the cancer an evil-being that is there to wreck havoc on everyone around. There are moments that, in reality, shouldn’t be funny, but somehow they come off as appropriate and cathartic because we want to laugh in order to forget the tears pouring from our eyes.
While Mann and Cooke give great performances, it is Cooke who steals the show as the “Dying Girl.” She lights up the screen with a spunky attitude while also giving an emotionally powerful performance of a girl suffering but still going with the blows. It is painful watching her deteriorate, but unlike other movies involving cancer, there is never a feeling of a countdown to death and tragedy. Here we have more of a “count-up”—we celebrate each day these friends get to be with each other instead of fearing if she will succumb to her illness.
Not just the story and performances are fresh, but the means of delivering them are, too. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who hasn’t done much else other than a few episodes of TV and a horror movie that passed under radars, shows a true love for film. With beautiful and unique cinematography, creative editing, hilarious references to old movies, and quick moments of stop-motion, it is nothing short of innovative and fun.
A funny thing happened when the credits rolled—not one person immediately stood up to leave like in most cases. Perhaps that should be credited to the two hours of cinematic bliss that was just streamed before our misty eyes. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl proves that there is still creativity and originality out there, that there are still people who care more about the story and characters than the paycheck. These are the films that need to be seen, and there is no better place to start than with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.