Sundance Film Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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RJ Cyler and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has made a name for itself as the Sundance darling. The comedy-drama has subverted the trend of stern-leaning Sundance favourites of past years -- Whiplash, Fruitvale Station, Beasts of the Southern Wild etc. -- by garnering the Grand Jury prize and the Audience award at this year’s festival. And it's well-deserved. It’s the Sundance film comedy I’ve been waiting for since 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine.

I recently wrote a piece on 2014’s The Maze Runner, a film as bloody as it is cheesy, in which I talked about the teens-killing-teens dystopian nightmare trend in young adult mainstream cinema today. Today, I’d like to talk about another burgeoning trend, a trend which requires the same amount of death but with almost none of the gore: the-teen-dying-of-cancer. It’s not a brand new idea, but in a beards and plaid and zoning out to The Smiths fashion, the-teen-dying-of-cancer trend has been hipster quirkified. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort popularized the genre (if we can call it that), with last year’s adaptation of the John Green novel, The Fault in Our Stars, which with surety in its emotional slickness, came off as phoney. So I guess I didn’t have much faith in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, expecting that same Fault in Our Stars-esque cringedom. But I love films that demolish those kinds of pre-conceived ideas, and Me and Earl does just that. 

Greg (Thomas Mann) is a self-annointed loner. He flits between social groups at his high school, socializing just enough to not get on anyone's shit list, and his only friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), someone he refers to not even as a friend, but as a "colleague". Earl and Greg are a movie-dorks match made in heaven, spending their lunch hours watching obscure art films in their history teacher's office and passing the rest of their days absorbing the Criterion Collection. In fact, Greg and Earl love movies so much that since childhood, they’ve been producing films in the likeness of their favourites. Grumpy Cul-de-Sacs as an homage to Scorsese's Mean Streets struck me as particularly inventive. But of course in this equation of Me, and of Earl, there's also the Dying Girl. Enter Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with Leukaemia. At the insistence of Greg's mother (and following a dramatic fight scene set to the Vertigo theme), Rachel and Greg start to spend time together, Rachel being a "friend" to Greg, and Greg fighting against supreme discomfort to be a "friend" to Rachel in her time of need.

The performances are fantastic, and the plot, albeit on the jaded side of things, is executed smartly. The real standout of Me and Earl however, is the next-level cinema geekery. I never thought I would be so lucky to witness a film so intrinsically dorky about film, and so proudly smothered in the stuff. It’s the perfect pastiche, the meat-lovers pizza for the cinephilia set, an exalted love poem, sublime in its dedication to celluloid. References to the Criterion Collection, Harold & Maude, and monologuing in the iconic cadence of Werner Herzog come as naturally as breathing. There’s an unbridled infatuation with cinema and total acknowledgement of (but no real shame of) a love of movies to an obsessive degree. It's wild new territory for film nerds — like porn for the cinema aficionado. I wouldn't want to be around one of us while watching Me and Earl lest you be pinched and squeaked at, and subjected to aggressive whispering.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon
104 minutes | USA

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