Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an American indie film that sounds awful thanks to its title. Presumably intended as a mocking reference to all those Hollywood films that prefer to sentimentalize the death of young people but instead coming off as callous, the film manages to overcome its title for a good stretch by virtue of being funny.
Greg (the Me of the title, played by Thomas Mann – not of ‘Death in Venice’) is a high school student who has the place figured out. By avoiding cliques and by not making any particularly close friends, he has been able to avoid notice all the way through school. His only companion is Earl (the Earl of the title, played by RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short films based on classics of world cinema. Forced into it by his mother, he befriends Rachel (the Dying Girl of the title, played by Olivia Cooke), who has leukaemia.
Being an adaptation of a book, Greg speaks a lot in voiceover, explaining his views on the world around him and introducing every character. He also offers wry meta-comments on the film itself, reassuring the audience that this film is not a tacky romance story and will not offer some false redemptive coda. Taking the film this way, one could read it as an antidote to and a critique of the way Hollywood will give anything a marketable happy ending. One could, but there wouldn’t be much use in trying.
The film’s main benefit is that it is funny for a good stretch. Greg and Earl are obsessed with the films of Werner Herzog and are frequently seen watching Burden of Dreams. This obsession permeated into the way they view the world, best seen when Greg completes a college application form in the style of Herzog’s documentary voiceover (though arguably a better pastiche of this has been done by Herzog himself in the funnier Penguins of Madagascar). Many of their films – cheap Sweded versions of old classics based on bad puns like “Where’d he go?” for Vertigo – are amusing. There is a scene in which they accidently get high, which fills space pleasingly, and some nice little jokes - the family cat being called Cat Stevens, etc.
The problems with the film begin in earnest in the second half, but they appear in miniature throughout. Rachel’s mother, Denise (Molly Shannon), is presented a little too mockingly to be entirely fair. And director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Wes Anderson style is irritatingly showy. Worse though is Greg’s repeated insistence that Rachel will not die at the end of the film – this is repeated so often that we know it can’t be true and it leaves an odd impression of the film trying its hardest to wring a little tension out of the whole situation, a touch too much manipulation for my liking. Equally, when Rachel does come to die, or indeed while she is dying, the film spends more time considering how this influences Greg on his way towards maturity, largely ignoring how it affects Rachel. It is strange to say but the film is ultimately about how a sick teenager’s death helped a young boy become a man, which is surely about as bad a message as any non-ironic Hollywood film. It doesn’t help that the film’s veneer of coolness breaks entirely, leaving the film just as self-important and tacky as any of those films it has been purportedly mocking. Considering the first half of the film after the second half, it seems that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is really two separate films that don’t cohere particularly well. Which then takes us back to Gomez-Rejon and his preference for Anderson copycatting in place of any kind of structure or intention.
Trying to straddle the divide between cold stylistics and emotional honesty whilst also trying to avoid every sick teenager cliché, the film ends up looking like a bit of a mess. These problems are less obvious initially when the film is at least quite funny, but they become bigger the more the film attempts to be serious. It finishes up as just another film that knows how to imitate but never works out what it wanted to say.