Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

A story to take you to another reality

Take some witty dialogue from the 2007 movie Juno, mix with the movie-making madness of The Science of Sleep (2006), add teenage coming-of-age drama plus a diagnosis of cancer, and you have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

A typical coming-of-age romance between an awkward adolescent boy and a cute young girl, but then we see the effects of chemo, and we quickly come back to reality.

Greg Gaines, the Me of the title, describes the narrative early in the film as “this is a story of my senior year in high school and how it destroyed my life.” Greg puts a lot of effort into not being noticed and trying to navigate through the many social groups without belonging to any of them.  Greg and Earl, his best friend, spend hours making short parody films, like a Sockwork Orange for Clockwork Orange, that are referential to the eclectic films his father and the local film store offer. His Werner Hertzog impressions are a fun break from the narrative we are in for. Yes, I am referring to the dying girl of the title.

Greg’s mother forces him to visit Rachel, a fellow schoolmate, who he hasn’t talked to since kindergarten. Rachel has been diagnosed with cancer and Greg’s mother thinks that visiting her would be a good thing to do. I can almost see my mother making me do something like this. Visit a girl you haven’t spoken to since kindergarten just because she was diagnosed with cancer and is probably dying? Which of the following reasons would motivate this mother to ask her son to go? (a) Your presence will make her grateful she is dying and won’t have to see you more. (b) Your humor might make her life slightly more bearable. (c) It might teach you something about life. (d) Why wouldn’t you want to do something like this? (e) All of the above.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does give us hints that this will be a typical coming-of-age romance between an awkward adolescent boy and a cute young girl, but then we see the effects of chemo, and we quickly come back to reality. The relationship they form is much richer than those we normally see in the typical romance film. It starts with Rachel distrusting Greg’s motives, but deepens as they come to realize what the future holds for each of them. There are wonderful humorous moments, and times of heartbreaking beauty as Greg and Rachel come face-to-face with the realities of death. Not all stories have a happy ending, and Greg with his fare of foreign flics is well aware of this, but that doesn’t stop all of us from hoping that Rachel will get better. It is amazing how our expectations, built by the normal film fare, have us assuming there will be romance and expecting the chemo to bring about at least a remission from the cancer. We don’t wallow in teenage angst, since Greg has a wisecrack for most situations—often to keep from having to engage. The film’s voiceovers, sometimes contradictory to what we think is happening, offer what passes as critique. Greg begins to see, however, that sometimes his comments are not funny but painful.

Greg doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, doesn’t have any idea of what college he wants to attend or even why he would attend. Rachel pushes him to apply and he is accepted; unfortunately, the journey through Rachel’s cancer means he stops paying attention in school, and his grades plummet. He gets the rejection letter shortly before the end of the film.

I don’t want to give away the resolution to the challenges our protagonists face, but you will laugh and you will feel sad, but you won’t feel manipulated by the narrative. I found the parody films, with their no-budget style to be disarming, and I understand why Greg tries to keep them a private matter between Earl and himself. Earl, on the other hand, outs the films to Rachel and she ends up using them as a respite from the journey she is on. In a way, that is what any good story offers us: space to enter another story that isn’t our own, with the hope that it will distract us from the present reality, connect emotionally, and give us something to think about. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the winner of the 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, is well worth the viewing.

This film is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language, and some thematic elements.