Young adult book adaptations have proven extremely popular in the last few years, finding success in various genres including dystopian science fiction (The Hunger Games, Insurgent), modern fantasy (Twilight), and the classic coming-of-age drama. In the latter, tragedy seems common place, showing that if there is one thing humans never tire of it is sadness. But sadness isn’t always bad. It is one of the most complex and nuanced emotions, and one that has been explored in a variety of ways through young adult fiction. Recently, the film adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars showed the trials of young love, further complicated by the lingering specter of cancer. Whereas romantic love was the basis for The Fault in Our Stars, platonic love takes center stage in the film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Based upon the book by Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the script), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows the story of Greg Gaines, a requisitely awkward, nondescript sort-of-loner who has maneuvered his way through the trials of high school by ingratiating himself into every social group while becoming actual friends with no one. This may seem contrary to the film’s title, which includes the name Earl, another high school student whom Greg refers to as his “coworker.” Greg met his schoolmate Earl at an early age and both developed a love for classic film. As they grew, they created their own adaptations of their favorite films, each titled with a humorous pun based upon the original. Greg’s easy life of evading any real human connection is interrupted when he learns that his childhood friend, Rachel, has fallen ill with leukemia. Forced by his parents to support Rachel in this difficult time, Greg grudgingly begins visiting Rachel. What follows is a tale of friendship, life, grief, and love. Whereas The Fault in Our Stars sold itself with its bittersweet romance, friendship is the basis of this film, and in this it excels, in a manner making it seem the more realistic of the two. This film is very much about life and growth and how it is to support someone facing a titanic obstacle. In that way, the film is unique. It is not about Rachel, rather it is about Rachel and her struggle through the eyes of Greg, a person who can do nothing save for simply being Rachel’s friend. In this lies the true charm of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
The film is anchored by three strong, central performances. Thomas Mann (It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Beautiful Creatures) conveys Greg’s forced nonchalance and self-hatred in a way that makes him endearing rather than annoying. His development throughout the film is a subtle thing, but one that is both relatable and realistic thanks to Mann’s performance (which convinces the audience that he is an actual teenager that speaks like an actual teenager) and Jesse Andrew’s deft writing. He is supported by RJ Cyler (making an impressive film debut), who plays Earl, a young man who proves to be more than just a coworker to Greg, but a friend to someone who would otherwise have no one. Their relationship isn’t perfect, but Cyler’s charm really sells the inner goodness hidden behind Earl’s harsh exterior. He is blunt and often insulting, but Earl genuinely cares about his friends. Lastly, Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, The Signal) plays Rachel, the “Dying Girl.” Cooke offers a multifaceted performance, ably demonstrating the mercurial nature of a person’s emotions as they’re faced with possible oblivion. Rachel is charming and positive, yet not unrealistically optimistic, and it is Cooke’s performance that really captures the struggle of a young person enduring the end of their life during the time where most young people feel like theirs are beginning.
The story is told with visual flare and creativity thanks to the direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Glee, American Horror Story) and the artful eye of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Featuring a number of fun pans, zooms, and creative shot placement, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is stylistically pleasing, yet never shallow. The visuals help convey the story just as much as the performances and a particular sequence at the end will have the audience swimming in tears thanks to a perfect meeting of the two. Finally, the score is a wonderful mix of atmospheric weirdness, delivered by Nico Muhly (The Hours, Notes on a Scandal) and famed ambient musician Brian Eno (Trainspotting, Shutter Island). The score manages to be sweet and melancholy without ever dipping into the treacly melodrama of other young adult fare, adding to the incredibly satisfying mélange that is this film.
Having seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl after hearing about its Sundance buzz (it became the most expensive purchase to ever occur at Sundance), it’s easy to see why it was so well-liked. In all, it is a simple story about the importance of friendship in the face of tragedy, one that is both silly and heartfelt, digging to the root of why facing something together is always better than doing so alone. It may not have the romance of other young adult stories, but it definitely has the heart.