Comedy, Cancer, and Criterion Films Make “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl" A Marvelous Masterpiece

By Scott Kurland

Film: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, and Molly Shannon
Rated: PG-13
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

For some reason this decade (starting in 2010 I mean,) is giving us something we haven’t seen since the 1980s. No, it’s not freestyle hip hop. I’m referring to great films featuring teens. Let me make myself perfectly clear, we’re not talking about teen movies starring twenty year olds playing teenagers. I’m talking about, teens playing teens in films aimed for twenty somethings and adults. John Hughes was the master of making this work, sadly he has passed on and now what we had in the past were sex comedies and slasher flicks. For some reason starting with “It’s Kind of A Funny Story”, “The Fault in Our Stars”, and “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” we’ve been able to tackle serious issues with teens as the central protagonists. This week’s film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is another one of those films, but is it any good? Lets find out shall we?

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, is the story of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a senior in high school living in Pittsburgh. Greg has been able to stay off everyone’s radar in high school by blending into every clicque, club, and group. However, this is his way of not making any real attachments to anyone including his Best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he calls his “business partner.” When Greg is forced by his parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) to spend time with a fellow student diagnosed with Leukemia (Olivia Cooke), Greg can’t say no. This starts Greg, Earl, and the Dying Girl on a journey involving friendship, emotions, and a love for classic cinema.

This film won the Grand Jury and Audience Prize at the Sundance film festival. Which surprised everyone because the title and plot suggests this movie to be another teen love fest....but it is so much more than that. This may be the first time we see a film about  teenagers who share a love for cinema as a way living. If I’m being perfectly frank here, I was like Earl and Greg in High School. I was very aloof, deeply involved with filmmaking and watched art house movies. Also, I was a bit of a snob when I talked about cinema... even now saying “cinema” makes me a snob. Never have I seen a film like this. I have seen films where teens listen to Britney Spears, wear Express jeans, and eat McDonalds. Why do they do these things? Because those are the companies paying for the film to be made. Not here, these kids eat vietnamese food, watch Werner Herzog films and make films based on “Harold and Maude”, “The 400 Blows”, and “A Clockwork Orange”. This a perfect film, with a perfect cast.

Thomas Mann who plays Greg has been on my radar for some time now. I first saw him in “It’s Kind of A Funny Story”, and thought "this kid has potential". Then he made some films like “Fun Size” and “Project X” and I thought....he’ll learn. As Greg, Mann captures the essence of this character, we really see who Greg is. He has issues with his appearance, he has a lot of pain that we don’t know about, and films are his way of escaping that. Mann really nails that film geek persona. He really does tremendous work and gets who this character is. All the actors do their homework and it is wonderful to see on the screen.

I have never said this before, nor do I know if I will ever say it again, but watching RJ Cyler as Earl I could see a star being born. Here’s a kid with no previous acting credits to his name, and  he gets the second lead in this star studded film only to knock it out of the park. Cyler is very raw as Earl, this is a real guy playing a real teenager who loves films, and he doesn’t know why. Cyler should be nominated for an Oscar for his role as Earl, because he is that good.  

I’m a big fan of “Bates Motel” actress Olivia Cooke, and I would like to see her in a film or show where she is not dying, but as Rachel she’ll break your heart. Years ago when an actress was dying on film she was diagnosed with “Ali McGraws disease”, you know what I’m talking about. An actress in a movie gets cancer, but as she dies she gets more attractive, her  hair becomes thicker, and for some reason she looks fantastic. Thank God they don’t do that here. Cooke’s Rachel is very sick and they show that. Whether she is going through Chemo, losing her hair, or coming to grips with her illness. Cooke is spectacular as Rachel. This is one of those performances that must have been incredibly trying for the actor playing the role, and Cooke never falters.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brings novelist/screenwriter Jesse Andrew’s words to life. Gomez-Rejon has directed episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” for television. He also directed the horror  remake of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”. “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl”, is completely different than any project he’s tackled before. His direction along with Andrews’ script should not work on paper, you have two very different artists. A young adult writer and a horror director. By some miracle they pull it off and make the best film of the year. I have seen so many films up to this point in the year, but “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl” might be the best. The social commentary on cliques vs. solitude in high school is refreshing. No one in this film is a perfect person, but they all have good hearts. Gomez-Rejon really redefines norms and themes that were set in place back in the Hughes/Reiner era of 80s film making, and the end result will encompass you.

“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl” is not your average film. It doesn’t have a true happy ending. There is no “Love Story” style romance, but it reminds you of what it was like to be a teenager once. Films are like people, they come in and out of your life. Sometimes you like them, other times you down right loathe them. “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl” just might be the equivalent of what some call “the love of your life”. This is a must see film, and you won’t be sorry.

scott kurlandComment