‘Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.’ Whoever coined this phrase likely knew that cancer is a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean comedy can’t be derived from it. As somebody who had a run-in with Lymphoma, I can definitely vouch for that. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl explores the darkest reaches of cancer and the moments of humor that make the experience a little less unbearable. Like 50/50 and The Fault in Our Stars, it’s a beautiful film for any young person that’s been affected by the disease in some way. What’s more, it’s a film for anybody that adores cinema.
Thomas Mann gives a breakthrough performance as Greg, a wallflower that manages to maintain a casual relationship with virtually every clique in school. Really, though, he’s a secluded loner who’s mastered the art of simply getting by. The closest thing Greg has to a true friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), who he makes shoddy remakes of classic films with. Their sock puppet interpretation of A Clockwork Orange is a particular masterpiece that’ll appeal to all movie geeks.
Nick Offerman and Connie Britton are no strangers to playing quirky parents, continuing their streak of winning supporting-cast work here as Greg’s carefree dad and nagging mom. Greg is forced by his mother to befriend a fellow student who’s been diagnosed with Leukemia. Olivia Cooke, who also portrays a dying girl in Bates Motel, shines as the down-to-earth Rachel. Where every other person gives Rachel cookie cutter sympathy and stock words for comfort, she takes solace in the fact that Greg addresses her condition directly and even lightheartedly.
Based on his novel, Jesse Andrews’ incredibly well written screenplay never tries to turn Greg and Rachel into a conventional couple. There is arguably a romantic connection between them, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl puts a much greater emphasis on friendship. Greg recognizes that Rachel just needs a shoulder to cry on and somebody to make her smile. In exchange, Rachel shows Greg that taking part in the social experience doesn’t have to be an unbearable challenge. If she can endure chemo, surely he can endure eating with people in the school cafeteria.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at times runs the risk of being too much like other recent coming-of-age indie comedies like The Spectacular Now, The Way Way Back, and The Kings of Summer. What makes the film all its own is the remarkable chemistry between the leads; honest dialog; and vivid direction from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Previously working on several Ryan Murphy programs, Gomez-Rejon fills his movie with inventive cinematography, sharp editing, and occasional stop-motion animation. In the hands of another director, these filmmaking techniques could come off as gimmicky and showy. Gomez-Rejon’s style works marvelously, however, in creating a genuine sense of awkwardness, uncertainty, and seclusion.
In the end, the true illness Greg and Rachel are suffering from is isolation. They help to cure one another by sharing the most vulnerable aspects of their lives. It amounts to a lovely relationship that seems ultimately doomed based on the movie’s title. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will have you laughing in delight one second, and sobbing in grief the next. It goes to show that life is full of difficult ordeals with no easy answers, but anybody who has a loved one to hold their hand throughout should consider themselves lucky.