When you find yourself so emotionally moved that you have to actively fight against the tears, you know you’ve been watching something phenomenally good. I was originally meant to watch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl last year on a film festival, but as so often happens, there was so much to see and so little time to see them all that the film didn’t make my short list. In hindsight I regret a little for not having seen this sooner, it’s that good that I wish I had seen it earlier.
The title is pretty self-explanatory. This is a story about Greg, the protagonist, his best mate Earl and Rachel, the Dying Girl who is diagnosed with leukemia, the time they spent together as friends during senior year in High School and how complicated life become as Rachel’s condition worsens and their friendship becomes something else entirely. It’s a very charming little film about friendship, death and well, empathy. To its credit, it manages to avoid the typical pitfalls of being too sappy or melancholic and though it is certainly a bit quirky, it doesn’t make a big deal about it. They film does a great job balancing the comedy and with the heavier drama and it gets the tone just right. It is a bit on the nose occasionally with meta-textual remarks like “if this was a movie…” but that never gets to the point where it’s obnoxious. It instead works as a gentle reminder that you’re not meant to start expecting, by sheer habit, the usual movie tropes to start oozing into the story, instead this is going to be a very different kind of a film.
One aspect that really pops to you in the movie is the characters, who all are surprisingly well fleshed out. Everyone from the minor background characters to Greg’s own parents have very distinct feeling personalities without really having much screen time to develop them to proper multidimensional people. Rachel’s alcoholic mother in particular struck a real big impact because she is just so fascinating on so many levels. For one thing, she’s always presented as this disturbingly cheery person, who is obviously self-medicating herself with a seemingly bottomless glass of wine, yet it’s never presented as that depressing or sad, or even that negatively. It’s just that Rachel’s mom appears to be a bit of a closet alcoholic. That is in part what makes her such a weirdly compelling character despite how little you actually get to known her. Her endless positivity creates such a strange dynamic when her daughter is sick from a terminal illness that it adds an element of surrealism to the film. Earl is also pretty interesting as he is so laid back and chill that he sort of transcends the narrative expectations of his character and plays more of a strong secondary supporting role in the story rather than being one of the main characters like the title would suggest. Earl is basically Greg’s conscience and rationality in flesh without the hang ups of Greg’s personal anxieties and it’s a dynamic that works surprisingly well. Olivia Cooke, whom I primarily know as the cute girl from Bates Motel with a respiratory illness, did a very solid performance as the titular Dying Girl. She brought the right combination of assertiveness, and that works for a kid who is trying to cope with the thought of dying. The movie really wouldn’t work as well if she had not given such a good performance, a lot of the dramatic weight relies on Olivia making her character feel so believable and real that you like and care about her, otherwise seeing her waste away and the friendship go to a rough patch would feel hollow and false.
There’s plenty to like here but if I had to give a concrete example or two as to why I love this movie outside of its strong, emotional core, one of the true highlights in the movie is easily the weird remakes of classic films that Earl and Greg do as their mutual hobby. They basically take the original title of a famous piece of cinema and then turn it into some kind of an awful pun and finally shoot an entirely new and cheaply made fake movie out of it. You only get to see very limited amount of the titles that they’ve produced, but the little that you get snippets of are all amazing. You for example have Stanley Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange turned into ‘A Sockwork Orange’ where the characters are all turned into socks and well, you can imagine the rest. There’s also My Dinner With Andre is changed into ‘My Dinner With Andre the Giant’ which is just adorable in its simplicity as a pun, etc. I also liked it when Earl and Greg accidentally get high and think it was from the soup that their teacher was eating. It’s incredibly funny to see them try keep their cool and totally not act like they were on drugs.
The movie easily has one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time. It is so touching that even as I type this I get a bit misty eyed while just thinking about. It’s beautiful and solemnly moving to witness Greg sneak into Rachel room near the conclusion of the movie, and see him discover an entirely new side of Rachel that he had never known before, presented through these rather intricate carvings made inside books. It’s such a powerful symbol of true friendship and the bond that it entails that even a cynic like me can’t help but feel moved by it.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl embodies what anybody should possibly want from a movie: it’s touching, funny but still just serious enough that it can tell a meaningful story without losing any of the emotional weight behind the life altering moments that it is depicting. You laugh, you cry, you walk away from it feeling happy and sad, feeling like you just experienced something very special and the director made a true connection to you, the audience member. You don’t come across films of this caliber very often. Even though it’s deeply sad, you also depart from it with a warm feeling.