Me & Earl & the Dying Girl
Written by Jesse Andrews
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is a film that has perhaps garnered the most hype this year at Sundance, and you should believe every word of it. By the end of the screening, there was hardly a dry eye in the entire theater. Following a teenage outsider, Greg (Thomas Mann), who makes cheap and funny remakes of classic films with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), as he befriends a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just developed leukemia. With a logline like that, it’s hard to not understand where all the tears are coming from. It sometimes feels cheap for filmmakers to use cancer as a way to garner emotion from the audience, but trust that when the tears do come, every single one has been earned.
Thomas Mann is often cast for his bland and unintimidating complexion, but this time around he really gets to live in the awkward insecurities of his character in Greg. He navigates the halls of his high school, recognizing it all as a separation of nations comprised of each group and clique. Rather than trying to fit into one, he coasts between all of them while being as non-intrusively as possible. His friendship with Earl is one he claims was born out of convenience and he refers to Earl as his “co-worker” rather than friend. Earl seems content with that label, he seems to know better than Greg does about himself. RJ Cyler gives Earl a silent confidence while displaying much care towards Greg. The chemistry between Mann and Cyler feels lived in. There is a shorthand in how they interact with each other – seeming to know what the other is thinking before acting.
Olivia Cooke is marvelous as Rachel. Cancer is an easy thing to oversell, but she keeps it honest all the way throughout. Rachel never becomes a stereotype even in moments that would otherwise beg her to be, and that’s due to the natural sympathy and honesty that Cooke plays Rachel with. Connie Britton is one of the greatest actresses to ever play a mother (Tami Taylor is the all-time greatest TV mom), and she brings wonderful authenticity in a limited amount of time to Greg’s mom. One scene finds her holding back tears as she watches Greg go off to prom, and it’s a moment filled with emotions that only a parent could have for their child – worry, pride and age all flash across her face in a span of seconds. Talents like Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Katherine C. Hughes and Jon Bernthal get the most out of their respective supporting roles in moments both dramatic and comedic.
It should be noted that despite the heavy subject matter, the film has a wonderful sense of comedy. The films that Greg and Earl make are hysterical, stop-motion animation is a recurring gag, while clever multiple references to Werner Herzog get laughs from knowing audience members. The sarcastic nature of Greg feels real and natural thanks to Mann, while Cyler’s more upfront way of confronting challenges serves as a nice foil to Greg, and brings a lot of humor out of his sharp response. With legendary South Korean DoP Chung-hoon Chung, they construct a terrific and inventively constructed energy to each scene, keeping the framing and length consistent with the character’s emotions and dynamics on screen.
After the screening, in between the credits finishing and the cast and crew coming out for a Q & A there was a chorus of sniffles across the theater. That’s what kind of movie this is. An audience member thanked the cast and crew for understanding what dealing with cancer was like as she had watched her son deal with it. Gomez-Rejon and his cast thanked her as they burst into tears. It’s clear that they all cared so deeply to present the most honest and felt portrayal of this story and these characters, and it succeeds because the emotions – whether dramatic or comedic – are never forced, but rather felt.