Based on the debut novel of writer Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is endearing with its painfully suburban but quirky setting, wide range of eccentric characters and first-person narration by our main character, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). From the get go, his character is swiftly established with his first line: “This is the story of my senior year of high school. How I almost destroyed my life and made a film so bad it literally killed someone.”
Following the high-school filmmaking duo Greg and Earl (RJ Cyler) through their “doomed” friendship with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who’s been recently diagnosed with leukemia, the movie seems to contain the makings of a perfectly mawkish tale, set to induce tears and follow every cliché that might spring from such a relationship. It is very clearly a coming of age film, generally filled with the suburban strife of coming to grips with life and responsibility. As such, its plot isn’t so innovative or fascinating: A white boy in suburbs grows up (or makes a butchered attempt to).
The story, for its part, does its best to fight against the the dramatic cliches and sentimental molasses of being a film about a “dying girl.” In themselves, the characters, while sometimes extremely frustrating, work to make the story light but meaningful. Where Greg could have been a whole lot more sensitive and heroic, he is instead socially awkward and comically cowardly. Where Rachel could have been a sad damsel suffering a tragic fate, she is sharp, honest, and funny. And where this could have been a sad love story, the relationship between our lead characters — as Greg repeatedly notes — is not constructed that way.
While the quirky range of characters (Greg’s sociologist father who frequently buys exotic foods; Rachel’s mother who is always just tipsy enough to say relatively creepy things) makes us giggle and brighten the mood, there are some serious undertones in the movie. The key to tapping into these is to really hear Greg over his self-deprecation and his way of dealing with awkward moments and actual human bonds. To understand Greg is to understand that his words should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s in the way he refuses to verbally admit Earl is his friend, though he so clearly is; it’s in the way his sadness at Rachel’s illness manifests in a fight between them.
Greg’s problem is not a case of confused identity. Rather, it is a problem with honesty and a well-established feeling of worthlessness. And in the face of a possible death of someone who has a place in his heart, Greg fails in many ways to be able to put himself together in time to leave no regrets behind. The result, despite Greg’s narrative efforts to lighten the film and insist on a witty, unsentimental story, is a rather heart-wrenching sensation and mixed reactions to the feeling of having been played. The viewer is left with the distinct impression of having allowed her/himself to be emotionally manipulated.
But at the same time, the movie is startlingly honest about death and how we as humans (fail to) deal with it. There is no silver lining, no radical shift in personality. It is just this: Death sucks. Rachel is not some philosophical martyr whose impending death changes everyone and everything. The friendship between Earl, Greg, and Rachel is not a dramatic turning point in their lives. Greg’s confrontation with death does not particularly leave a profound impact on his life — nor does it really change how he is as a person. At the end, he is still himself, albeit perhaps a bit wiser and older. In the end, life goes on in a straight, horizontal line across time. What remains behind Greg are empty rooms and memories left behind, and the truth that someone is gone, and that the only way to move is forward.
Catherine is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.