Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (M&E&TDG) seemed to incite seething infuriation in those around me. The mutters, and swear word laden frustrations rippled through the rows of seats. From what I could glean there were gripes with emotional manipulation, (potentially contrary) poorly conceived of characters and niche targeting of ‘hipster’ back slapping of regaining some of these obscure film reference and titles. Perhaps it could be because there’s been several times that I’ve been a shitty self-involved friend; far too pre-occupied with how my own narcissistic, adolescent shit was making my extremely privileged life feel too overwhelming to deal with the moment that I empathised with Greg. And I see no rhyme or reason begrudging director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for gushing over the films that inspired him to be a filmmaker in a text that so richly lends to it.
Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) are floating on the fringe of the high school experience when an acquaintance Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with cancer. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) makes an agreement with Rachel’s mother Denise (Molly Shannon) that he’ll keep her company during this tough time.
M&E&TDG is just a cinephile’s joy. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Jesse Andrews feel like they were given permission to make M&E&TDG a film as referential about the toil of actually attempting to honour a person as it is about attempting to honour the character’s Criterion collection foundations. In that way it felt akin to something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is at once critical (in a meta of self-reflexive way) of detective noir while slavishly adhering to and loving the ‘formula’. During the sequences where we get to catch snippets of Earl (Ryan Cyler) and Thomas Mann’s Greg home video reworking of cinematic classics; you won’t be able to help cackling with laughter at either the completely absurd titles, the impressive and hilariously ‘arts and crafts’ production values, or the inventive and ridiculous improvisations of the boys movie projects. The production design is flawless, every space has a rich lived in feeling filled with thoughtfully placed stuff and clutter that’s essential to how we interact with the characters and how they interact with each other. Overall, Gomez-Rejon’s staging and visual execution was excellent.
It’s almost impossible to discuss Greg (Mann) without discussing his relationship with Earl. Cyler’s Earl is a stand out. One can absolutely see that the inherent neurosis and self-loathing narcissism of Greg can get tiresome. However, Earl most definitely gets to play the conscience of the piece and attempt to wake our leading man from almost gravitational lure to self-pity. I feel like Gomez-Rejon and Andrews want you to toe the line between being infuriated by him and the utter bullshit of his apparent struggle with supporting parents, relatively smooth sailing throughout high school and an awesome best friend he can’t help but posit the universe with him at the centre. Personally, I’ve come to accept that I was nothing but a high functioning primate in my teenage years, with the emotional sophistication of a carrot. Watching Greg’s extremely frustrating behaviour only makes you admire the people around him. Earl is as refreshing as an ice bucket challenge. He drags him back in check, comes out of his shell in such a way that you almost begin to briefly question the reliability of the potentially unreliable narrator’s recollection of how Earl acts/acted in any given situation. Cyler is pitch perfect with timing, and the emotional equaliser.
Olivia Cooke’s Rachel is a wonder. It’s tough to not start seeing this character become a ‘type’ after films like My Sister’s Keeper and The Fault in Our Stars but she’s able to be both strong and delicate as her body buckles under the weight of cancer and the overwhelming inevitability. Cooke gets raw in a way that you can feel the light dimming in her as the poison cure of the chemotherapy extinguishes everything she is.
The supporting tapestry of characters in M&E&TDG is exceptional. Greg’s Dad, a sociology professor, is played by the one and only Nick Offerman. Greg’s Dad walks around the house in almost exclusively in a kimono, serving a strange train of exotic foods to accompany a revolving playlist of amazing cinematic masterpieces fostering a space for experience and knowledge to flourish. Connie Britton plays Greg’s sweet, caring mother, directing him toward a friend’s daughter in need. She knows that her son has distracting qualities. Molly Shannon plays Denise, the lonely and deliciously flirtatious mother. Denise must have a glass of wine in her hand and an amazing smutty double entendreon hand whenever she interacts with Greg. Jon Bernthal plays a completely tattooed history teacher that instils work ethic and worldliness more than accounts of time. They’re an eclectic group of characters that live and die in the commendable casting decisions.
M&E&TDG is about being in the midst of a situation that could define you, and everyone except you realising it.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Jesse Andrews (novel and screenplay)
Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Masam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson