Callbacks to last summer’s The Fault In Our Stars or the early 2000s guilty pleasure A Walk to Remember are inevitable upon learning that Me & Earl & the Dying Girl‘s plot surrounds a high school girl suffering from cancer and a boy befriending her as her health worsens. Your assumption probably goes like this: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl dies, boy is profoundly impacted by the relationship.
Some parts of this equation are true (bonus: it is also based on a book by Jesse Andrews); but what separates Me & Earl & the Dying Girl from other films is its ability to wittily and honestly confront the very nature of human connection. This is a challenge for the ‘Me’ in the story – a boy named Greg (Thomas Mann, Project X), who floats in between cliques, always polite and friendly in interactions but never actually befriends anyone. Greg’s closest companion, if any, is ‘Earl’ (Ronald Cyler II), who he eats lunch with in his teacher’s office and makes home movies with after school.
Save for his father (Nick Offerman, Parks and Rec)’s daily exotic cuisine adventures, Greg’s life is pretty ordinary. Applying to college and preparing to leave the dull but safe haven that is high school, Greg is not interested in pursuing friendships or long-lasting memories other than the ones associated with his home movies. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights, Nashville) thinks differently; upon hearing that his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) is diagnosed with cancer, she pushes Greg to befriend her. To his initial, secret dismay, they actually do bond – and it’s that bond that inspires Greg to create a film with Earl for the Dying Girl.
There is a very enduring tale at the very core of Me & Earl & the Dying Girl that surely transcends its high school setting, but is so effectively communicated because of that setting. High school is, at least for many North American teenagers, the place where we truly begin to forge those connections, some that are life-long, and some that are momentary conveniences. Through Greg (a convincingly nonchalant performance from Mann), we come to realize that the beauty of either is the chance we take for ourselves by opening up the emotional floodgates to learn something and to experience more even if the story stops, the doors close, and we head onto something else. Lessons and bonds are eternal.
The proof is not just in the vote (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.) This film is as charming and deserving as the press in Utah made it out to be, and for several reasons. The images of kids eating popsicles after school, the snarky commentary and the central homage to filmmaking are surprising bursts of nostalgia, wrapped by the comedic fare from Britton, Offerman, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom. Olivia Cooke is wondrous in her ability to balance a good-natured spirit with the physical and emotional pains of her character’s illness. Yet for all of this, the most defining feature of this film, which will surely become a highlight in this generation’s cinematic experience of adolescence, is the love that ties its characters, story and production all together. It feels like a project that that involved people who cared deeply, which all the more communicates the point of this filmB
The takeaway, in actuality, spans generations, and the significance is clear: to one another, we do matter.