Everyone who’s seen a trailer for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” knows it’s a tearjerker. It’s got all the right ingredients: a cancer-stricken girl, an awkward teenage boy with obvious self-esteem issues and an indie musical score so maudlin that it has the potential to make you weep buckets. But what you might not gather from the trailer is that the film is actually a dark comedy.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” could have gone wrong so easily. On paper, it has all the fixings of a cliche sick-girl romance, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Jesse Andrews steered clear of that Nicholas-Sparks-John-Green-paved path. Instead, they created something that feels fresh, funny and sincere with just enough indie quirk.
Greg (Thomas Mann) doesn’t have “friends,” and he prefers it that way. The rising senior has made it through the last three years of high school gathering acquaintances from each clique, purposefully avoiding any sort of personal connection. He spends his lunch on neutral ground far away from the cafeteria war zone — an office occupied by his too-cool-for-school history teacher and his classmate Earl (Ronald Cyler II), whom Greg refers to as his “colleague.” The three tend to keep to themselves by watching old foreign movies together, usually in silence or while engaged in impersonal conversation. As Greg says in the voiceover narration, it’s the type of relationship that works for him.
Though Greg never admits it — perhaps because he doesn’t even know it — Earl is his best friend. The two have been “colleagues” since grade school, when they bonded over their shared love of eccentric films, and over the years, they’ve cultivated an oeuvre of penny-budget parodies of their favorites — many of which get screen time and warrant a few chuckles.
For the two teens, filming their parodies provides an escape from their respective home lives. Greg dreads conversations with his overbearing but well-meaning mother (Connie Britton) and his kooky sociology-professor father (Nick Offerman), while Earl’s problems stem from being poor and living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” There’s not much else you can glean from Earl’s situation — aside from the fact that he doesn’t like to go home — because the film revolves around Greg, and Greg doesn’t seem bothered to ask or care. Doing so would mean forming a personal connection, and he’s far too self-centered for that.
But when Greg’s mother learns that his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia, she immediately orders Greg to hang out with the girl and form one of those oh-so-dreaded connections. He capitulates, and soon Rachel becomes the one thing Greg has trained himself to stay away from: a person to care deeply about. He lets Rachel in, only to be met with the gut-wrenching realization that he has attached himself to someone he, along with the rest of the living world, will inevitably lose.
The film never feels cloying or pretentious, despite oblique camera angles and intellectual dialogue that, at times, sounds as if it could double as a dissertation. The credit for the film’s success, however, shouldn’t go to solely the director and the writer.
The comedic effect of the film is due in large part to Cyler, who delivers an abundance of one-liners with such gusto that it’s hard to believe he’s a newcomer to the acting scene. Cyler manages to bring a third dimension to a character that was clearly written without one, which is especially impressive considering that his lines are often relegated to reiterations of the word “titty” or “titties.”
Meanwhile, Cooke, who makes a surprisingly late appearance in the film, doesn’t saddle her character with too much vulnerability and plays up Rachel’s emotional strength, even in the character’s darkest hours. But be warned: When she does cry, you should probably be prepared to whip out your Kleenex. Like Greg, the audience easily forms an attachment with her.
Not to be forgotten, Mann shows us that it is possible to play an awkward teenage boy without delving into Michael Cera’s heralded territory. Yet, despite Mann’s fine performance and plentiful screen time, it’s Earl and the dying girl whom the film couldn’t survive without.
Contact Gillian Edevane at [email protected].