“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a terrible title for a movie.
When my dad and I walked up to the box office at our favorite Chicago multiplex, he asked for two tickets to see “Dying Girls.” I cringed, immediately embarrassed for myself and for the fact that this is the film’s actual title. But there’s some accuracy to his error. “Me and Earl” are essentially preamble for the kicker at the end of that title. “Dying Girl” brings to mind “The Fault in Our Stars,” “A Walk to Remember” and countless other film adaptations of sappy sick-girl teen lit that make suburban moms cry. “Dying Girls” are all you remember from that self-indulgently long, mumbly string of a title.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” surpasses the curse of the dead girl title, because the “dying girl” is incidental. Yes, this film features a sick young lady, but “Me and Earl” is a character study on the person most affected by her illness.
The movie orbits around Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, “Project X”), a self-loathing cinephile who drifts through high school trying desperately to avoid attachments. From the beginning, Greg is pretty unsuccessful at being untethered and friendless — his movie-making partner Earl (RJ Cyler, “Second Chances”) eats lunch with Greg, hangs out at his house after school and is a best friend in every regard except by name. When Greg’s mom encourages him to hang out with his recently diagnosed classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”), he has to confront his fear once and for all. Committing to a regular friendship is difficult enough, but it’s even more painful when that friendship has an expiration date.
For his first film, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejón employs the same set of cinematic quirks he honed while working on “American Horror Story” and “Glee.” Gomez-Rejón’s bizarre compositions, unusual focus and a hyper-kinetic and restlessly moving camera work to support Greg’s character. Greg’s love of classic foreign cinema bleeds into the way his life is shot, with title cards and “parts” harkening back to the days of silent movies, and shades of French New Wave and German Expressionist technique find their way to this contemporary indie movie. In many regards, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is like a love letter to classic cinema and the movies its main characters admire so much.
Greg’s voice-over narration lends a more personal affect to the film. Toward the beginning, he mainly uses it to bolster the snarky facade he puts on for his classmates and the audience, but as the film goes on, the narration gives him a platform to tell the audience what he’s really thinking and feeling. As Rachel moves from being an acquaintance to a friend, and then from a friend to an integral part of his life, Greg opens up. He’s afraid to go to college because he can’t retreat back to his room and watch movies and avoid everything, and as the film’s title reminds viewers from the beginning, Rachel is dying and might not survive the end of senior year to see Greg go to school and grow up.
However, “Me and Earl” neglects its supporting characters while developing Greg so fully. Earl is meant to serve as the film’s comic relief, but some of the movie’s jokes are racially insensitive. Earl is from a rougher part of town, and the small glimpse viewers get of his home life is a caricature of tired African-American stereotypes. He lives in a “rougher” part of town, has an older brother with a ferocious pet dog and he constantly cracks jokes about women’s bodies, especially “them titties.” These are not necessarily negative qualities, but when all viewers know about Earl is that he is Black and likes movies, the singularity of the film’s focus becomes obvious. Rachel and her mother are similarly pushed to the background, even though the second half of the film would be much stronger if Rachel appeared important to other characters apart from Greg.
The end of the film makes up a bit for this narrow-mindedness, providing an emotional gut punch as the inevitable happens. Greg breaks out of his self-imposed isolation, and in the last fifteen minutes, all the film’s earlier cynicism comes crashing down. He makes a movie that isn’t a joke, one that can come close to saying how much he’s done for her. The carefully constructed images decompose into bits of colored paper and light. The music (Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship”) is gorgeous and exultant, a perfect cue for tears that are equal parts catharsis, heartbreak and awe.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” inspires these same emotional complexities. The title is bad, but it speaks to the inherent tragedy of being a teenager — losing the comforting relics of childhood like making parody movies, and having to face crucial decisions and follow up whether you’re ready or not. Greg and Earl and the Dying Girl all confront the unknown at the end of their teenage years, but this is Greg’s story, for better or worse.