We don’t talk about it, but hot people destroy lives. Every time a pretty person touches my arm, or even talks to me, it really does feel like being stomped out by a moose. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is one of my favorite films of all time because it just gets that.
“Me and Earl” is about Greg (Thomas Mann, “Project X”), a self-loathing high school senior, his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler, “Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke, “Thoroughbreds”), a dying girl. Greg befriends Rachel on his mother’s insistence when she’s diagnosed with leukemia in the fall of their senior year. He spends most of his time making parodies of classic films with Earl and trying his best to go unnoticed in his school, but is gradually coerced into going outside of his comfort zone by Rachel. In the end, Greg still hates himself, but he’s working on it.
While “Me and Earl” has gained a cult following since its release in 2015, it was cursed by the misconception that any story about a kid with cancer is automatically committing intellectual property theft against John Green. It’s not a super popular movie on a grand scale, but among film brats like my friends and me, it’s kind of essential viewing.
I think it’s sort of that thing about the universality in the specific — like, why do we all feel like we’re Lady Bird? We can’t all have grown up in Sacramento, we didn’t all have a mom who worked in a psych ward, we didn’t all have an adopted brother who got into Berkeley. But a lot of us had a strained relationship with our mothers and the religions we were raised in and how much money our families had. Likewise, we can’t all be Greg, but I sure did spend a lot of time watching old movies because I was lonely, because I had nothing better to do with my time, because, as Greg says, “they were weird and violent, like us, or confusing and possibly meaningless, like life.”
It’s not “8 ½,” you know, it’s not specifically a film about film, but it is in a way. Film says the things we can’t say. It’s easier to laugh and say “That’s me” when Earl says that Greg is “terrified of callin’ somebody his friend” than it is to say that the fear of being alone keeps me up at night, that I’m paralyzingly convinced that everyone, even that hypothetical Earl in my life who I’ve known since kindergarten, secretly hates me.
It’s why we watch movies, I think — because it’s just so easy. It’s not news to anyone that stories in general are kind of what keeps the world going; I think a lot about what James Baldwin once said: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” But with film in particular, I think seeing people, not having to make up their faces in your head, no modernist free indirect discourse or any whale metaphors, just these actors and what their body language tells you about who they are — I think that really makes a difference.
A part of me liked this movie in high school because I really wanted a Greg that looked like Thomas Mann and listened to Modest Mouse and had a “400 Blows” poster on his wall. And when you’re watching a film, you can melt into it, project all your insecurities into the culture of celebrity and imagine that this person you’ve invented in your head would be totally accepting of you and all your faults because you feel like you’ve already seen all of theirs. There’s that parasocial relationship in which you watch actors cry, and hear these stories that screenwriters pour their hearts and souls into, and you’re able to see that emotional nakedness — but you don’t have to make yourself vulnerable to do the same.
When I’m not glued to a screen, I try to make sense of these feelings by reading the quote from Brené Brown on my wall, from her book “Daring Greatly”:
“Masks make us feel safer even when they become suffocating. Armor makes us feel stronger even when we grow weary from dragging the extra weight around. The irony is that when we’re standing across from someone who is shielded or hidden by masks and armor, we feel frustrated and disconnected. That’s the paradox here: Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”
I guess thinking about masks made me want to revisit “Me and Earl.” I went on a socially distanced picnic recently and really needed to hear Greg say about college, “I see myself dying of a panic attack two weeks in.” He doesn’t know how to not hate himself, but he knows about film. He tries so hard to be liked without actually letting anyone into his life, feels like calling someone he doesn’t really know is just like that one scene in “Taxi Driver,” tries to make something lighthearted out of Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon, “Saturday Night Live”) saying that parents can’t protect their children from everything, is convinced he’s ugly and probably has a record number of awkward dismounts from a prolonged bit that maybe stopped being funny a minute ago. I feel like the social anxiety of a socially distanced picnic is sometimes on the same level as that of a high school cafeteria, and I need movies like this to remind me that that’s okay.
One of the most intimate things you can do with another person is sit down and cry in front of a movie together, even if neither of you have terminal leukemia or starred in “Ready Player One.” How do we have this gut knowledge that Greg and Earl made up after their fight when there’s no dialogue, just their body language? What are the implications of a girl hanging scissors on her wall and cutting up her dad’s books? Why does it hurt so much when your friend hugs somebody else and not you? Why is the lyric “I’d come running to tie your shoe” so romantic? Why is it so devastatingly scary to be ugly when we’ve been told our whole lives that it doesn’t matter? I don’t know, and neither does Greg, but at least we have films to help us deal with it.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.