Sundance darling Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is every bit as quirky as its title suggests. In short, self-deprecating high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann), who fancies himself an island in a sea of cliques and caricatures, is coerced by his mother into befriending his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after she is diagnosed with leukemia. It has all the makings of a shlocky, The Fault In Our Stars knock-off. And yet, the sum far exceeds its parts.
Based on the same-named novel by Jesse Andrews, this atypical cancer story eschews the expected YA sentimentality in favor of the put-upon, pessimistic teenage sensibilities along the lines of The Perks of Being a Wallflower— the eternal struggle of misfits who prefer sidestepping society to trying to fit in. Greg and his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) spend their lunch periods in their tattooed, angrily exuberant History teacher’s office, watching esoteric films recommended by Greg’s father (Nick Offerman). In their spare time, they film black-and-white/stop-motion/puppeteer nostalgia-tripping homages-cum-parodies of their favorite films, such as “A Sockwork Orange” or “2:48pm Cowboy.”
Rachel, too, is blithe and blasé about her diagnosis, instead of wallowing in self-pity and misery—at least, as far as we can see. Her storyline is somewhat hindered by the film’s close adherence to Greg’s perspective. Still, she has a wry wit and a quiet smirk, and seems to bring out the small morsels of joy buried deep below Greg’s self-loathing and hopelessness. Though the film makes sure to note, in Greg’s acerbic narration, “This isn’t a touching, romantic story,” their friendship oscillates between platonic and romantic: are they kindred spirits, or unable to admit their feelings?
Still, their friendship is more then enough to carry the story. As her disease progresses, Rachel becomes more and more frustrated with her growing weaknesses, and Greg with her difficult-to-understand attitude. Sometimes, it seems like his refusal to pity her, which earned him her respect in the first place, drives them apart. It feels like a painfully nuanced representation of friendship with someone terminally ill, and both angry at and accepting of the cards they’ve been dealt. And watching her crumble despite her best efforts forces Greg to actually confront, rather than sidestep, life (and death).
Earl’s role, if underdeveloped, is fascinating. He’s somehow more brazen and jaded than Greg, but also more invested in humanity. Their friendship exists in a companionable silence, but it also feels like they use their apathy to avoid talking about anything of substance. Their films, all of which seem to be built on the same cheap and satirical shtick, are a replacement for deeper conversation.
However, at times the world-weariness grows tiresome. A significant subplot revolves around college applications, and Greg’s lack of interest in any form of higher education. He’s evidently talented, and it’s aggravating to watch him disregard any ounce of ambition. And the way he uses his disinterest to shield himself from actual emotions, if understandable, quickly becomes annoying.
Despite its flaws, the film is charming and endearing, in an eye-rolling, snarky way. Aesthetically, it reads like a love-child of Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, built around the quiet pauses of the latter and filtered through the nostalgia and symmetric visuals of the former. Thematically, it’s a coming-of-age film with the twist that one of the characters isn’t even afforded that privilege. But her brief flare of spirit is able to ignite something, and we are lucky to watch her burn.