Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – It’s Not Shit
Yes, the star of Ouija and the director of The Town That Dreaded Sundown join forces to make a touching and cleverly funny movie about teen cancer?
I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but I’ll take it.
TL;DR Free of the schmaltz of The Fault in Our Stars, and a with a lot more genuine comedy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is exactly the kind of teen movie that I’ve been craving. The cast is astoundingly perfect, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the reality of leukaemia, but is never grim. Who knew cancer could be so sweet? 4 out of 5 stars.
And yes, I cried. You got me.
So the plot follows the “Me” from the title: Greg (Thomas Mann), a high schooler who delicately balances allegiance to every clique in school to keep himself free of drama, but also to avoid making any real connections. His mum forces him to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate and distant old friend who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Despite the fact that he doesn’t want to be there and she doesn’t want his pity, the two strike up a wonderful friendship. Rachel also comes to know Earl (RJ Cyler), Greg’s “co-worker” with whom he makes short films based on parody titles of classic movies. But as Rachel’s cancer overwhelms her, Greg becomes more and more caught up in her life, which clashes with his preferred aloofness, and feeds his toxic lack of self-esteem. Unable to face the mortal reality of Rachel’s situation, Greg pushes away everyone in his life, and spoils his chances at college acceptance. But, in a stirring finale, he faces his demons and regains the courage to show Rachel the personalised movie he had been working on for her, and he doesn’t miss his chance to say goodbye. The movie closes as Greg cherishes his time spent with Rachel, and looks ahead to his future with optimism.
It’s a real winner. Honestly.
I went into Me and Earl looking for my next The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Which, if you’ll remember, utterly crushed me.
And I was very, very impressed with Me and Earl.
Sadly, it’s no Perks (a recent re-watch of Perks confirmed that, yes, it still crushes me). But it’s still a bloody good coming-of-age movie.
And, as someone in their mid-twenties who is yet to grow up, that’s kind of my jam.
Why I DON’T hate this movie:
You just can’t go past that casting. Yes, Olivia Cooke is being typecast hard in this role (although I am glad that casting agents are watching Bates more than they’re watching Ouija and The Quiet Ones. Blech), but she’s had the practice and is really fucking fantastic. Rachel’s got a bit more pep to her than mousy Emma. Which makes the gradual dissolution of her personality all the more heartbreaking.
Thomas Mann is the real revelation here. He’s been knocking about since his leading role in the now-forgotten Project X, and it’s hard to believe that kid is this one. It’s a shame Nat Wolff got in on the “kinda nerdy teen leading man” game just before Thomas Mann did. Because Nat Wolff always comes off as a smarmy arsehole (yes, I’ve seen Paper Towns). Thomas Mann is like the blonde, non-arsehole Nat Wolff. Wake up, Hollywood.
Greg is a great character, too. It’s refreshing to see a male lead wracked with such strong, debilitating self-esteem issues and self-loathing. His determination to be aloof springs from his perception of being unworthy of affection. Earl describes to Rachel about how Greg’s parents compliment him frequently, which only exacerbates Greg’s paranoia, because he doesn’t think he deserves it. It’s really pretty amazing. Especially in a movie where another major character already has a leukaemia journey going on.
Greg and Rachel collide in the movie’s most powerful scene when they have an argument, in a single, devastating take, about her decision to discontinue treatment and submit to death. It’s heartbreaking.
And it was a fucking miracle to see a movie between a boy and a girl whose relationship isn’t romantic. The movie makes sure to address this, and sticks to it. Thank God.
Earl, despite his high placement in the title, largely gets shut out and reduced to being an exposition fairy to tell Rachel about Greg, and a conflict for Greg to endure when he starts pushing everyone away. Their fight (Greg’s one-take fight with Rachel is precipitated by Earl telling Rachel about the secret movie they’re making for her) isn’t as strong as Greg and Rachel’s, but when you consider that Earl is Greg’s only friend, and that Greg is so determined to stay detached that he won’t even use the word “friend,” it’s pretty rough.
The supporting cast doesn’t get a lot to do, but I will give special mention to Madison, the nice, popular girl who Greg has a crush on. She’s super sweet, and she’s honest with Greg when he’s being a shithead. All the teen characters in this movie feel real. And Madison is disgusted when Greg gets into a fight at school. We need more girls who are sane enough to see that fighting isn’t attractive.
Connie Britton and Nick Offerman pop in and out occasionally as Greg’s hippie-ish parents; Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mum, who has her own struggles to accept her daughter’s condition; and Jon Bernthal gets a couple of scenes as Greg’s cool teacher. It’s a strong field.
Bernthal gets a pivotal scene later in the movie when he tells Greg that just because someone’s dead doesn’t mean you can’t still care about them and learn about them and carry them with you. Powerful.
Oh, and in response to some critics who have complained that the movie is misogynistic or exploitative because it “uses” Rachel and her cancer to tell a story about Greg, a white heterosexual male: shoosh. This is Greg’s story. Rachel is a big part of it, but Greg is the protagonist. Just like how real people experience cancer in loved ones, so does Greg. The movie, and Greg, don’t “use” Rachel to further their own growth. Rachel happens to be an integral part of Greg’s coming-of-age because he cares about her. So stop it.
But it’s not all good:
Greg narrates parts of the movie, and he tells us on two separate occasions that Rachel most definitely does not die (once at thirty-seven minutes, and again at fifty-six minutes). Rachel, obviously, does die, and Greg later explains via narration that he was in denial or whatever. I understand it, but it’s a cheat.
This is subjective, but I hated Greg’s movie for Rachel. He and Earl had made some attempts at doing interviews of students, but were disappointed with the impersonal platitudes they mostly got. So the movie Greg ends up showing Rachel on her deathbed is some esoteric, stop-motion animation artsy thing. I didn’t dig it.
Throughout the movie, Greg gradually starts ignoring his studies to spend time with Rachel, resulting in an acceptance to a college being revoked. After Rachel’s death, we find out she’s written a letter to the college to explain why Greg’s grades faltered, and the movie ends as Greg writes his story out and includes the movie to send to the college. I know it’s heartless, but I don’t think that’s going to make much a difference. “Sorry I underperformed, but I am clearly displaying my ability to be distracted by personal matters. You college people like that, right?”
The movie oversells the whole high school clique politics stuff. It worked in something like Mean Girls, which was a bit on the wackier side. But it’s an odd fit when pushed up against a serious cancer story.
Oh, and Greg dogs Madison at prom. He takes the limo to go see Rachel instead of picking Madison up like he was supposed to. And we didn’t see him, like, calling Madison to tell her what he was doing. Rude.
It isn’t Perks. But Perks is perfect, so that’s a tough ask. But it’s not a tough ask to forgive Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s very minor issues. This is a movie that doesn’t romanticise its teen protagonists. You aren’t gonna see any rounds of applause for kissing in Anne Frank’s attic here, baby. What you get is a movie that’s proud of its comedy, and assured in its drama. It’s sweet, but it’s not sugarcoated. It will stay with you. It’s not shit. 4 out of 5 stars.
Tags: cancer, Connie Britton, Earl, greg, i just hate everything, ijusthateeverything, It's Not Shit, Jon Bernthal, leukaemia, leukemia, madison, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Olivia Cooke, rachel, RJ Cyler, self-esteem, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Thomas Mann
About ijusthateeverythingSincerity is death.
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