By Tom Platt. Grief, sickness, death. These words trigger inherent responses, fleshed out by a series of individually unique experiences and stories that will leave anyone lost in their personal thoughts. It is rare, in a film, for these elements to transcend melodrama or to express the quiet fortitude that comes to mind when we think of these words and the ways in which they have affected our lives.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a purposefully invisible, self-loathing high schooler, as he is forced by his mother (]) to befriend his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl recently diagnosed with Leukemia. While awkwardly trying to survive this unavoidably difficult time, Greg fumbles into his second-ever friendship by way of an adorable, honest wit.
Presenting a coming of age story reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) finds a way to drop the sappy cliches and present a film more aptly compared to Salinger than Sandlot. Adapting his own novel for the screen, Jesse Andrews provides a source material that not only provides the possibility for Michel Gondry-esque whimsy, it demands it.
Greg and his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) are two kids from opposite sides of the tracks that have been best friends since they were little. Unintentionally honed by Greg’s father (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation), the boys have an unlikely understanding of classic foreign cinema that would make any film student jealous. They’ve spent their lives homaging these wonderful films by way of parody, utilizing sock puppets, stop motion, and lots of construction paper to create nearly fifty films.
Pulling from the onslaught of films referenced, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (the original Oldboy) delivers a visual style that, while reminiscent of many things, stands as its own wonderful Frankenstein, complete with amazing snap pans and zooms that provide a modern example of how to use camera movement to your advantage in film.
Carried through the plot with both narration and recurring title cards, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is extremely accessible, garnering a wide range of audiences as well as praise. It feels enough like other films from the Indian Paintbrush company (Juno, 500 Days of Summer) in both style and tone, however, because of its painstakingly honest characters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stands out beyond those expectations.
Greg’s teacher, played by Jon Bernthal (Wolf of Wall Street), says it best: “Life can keep unfolding itself to you as long as you pay attention.” Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does everything to express that death and grieving isn’t all about tears and suffering and life lessons. Playing more as a backdrop, we are shown that death isn’t the part we remember best about someone. The film reminds us that death came after life, not in place of it, and in doing so leaves behind a trail of laughter, emotion, insecurity, confusion, but above all else, beauty.
While successfully merging a variety of styles (see: Tarantino, Gondry, Cianfrance, Anderson) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still finds difficulty in transcending any of them. The film may stand out amongst the ever-growing crop of mainstream indie flicks, but it struggles to become more than the sum of any of its parts.
Still, it’s hard to find fault with a piece that takes the audience on such an emotional rollercoaster. In spite of showing a mastery in the art of indie filmmaking, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon fails to show us much beyond this recognizably whimsical style that is becoming more and more formulaic. While executed brilliantly it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve been here many times before. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl expresses a worrisome, albeit essential, mainstream understanding of the “indie style”, yet it feels like the end of that stylistic era. But if Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is our last hoorah, well, it was a good one.