Seamus O’Kane, Contributor
A movie charting a love story involving two teenagers and leukaemia is what I expected of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The similarity to The Fault in Our Stars is clear. The comparisons are inevitable. However, to place the film in that field would be doing it a disservice. It is not that at all.
Me and Earl begins with Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) reluctantly spending time with the recently-diagnosed Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Their friendship grows, sometimes with the help of Greg’s best friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II). The film not only tells this story but questions the potential directions of a narrative, a self-reflexive meditation on how a story forms. Greg Gaines is a high school student in his final year who shoots film parodies in his free time (including the delightful A Sockwork Orange). His creativity shows as he tells a story that liberally plays with conventions. One scene sees the obligatory trope of the high school movie, the listing of the different social groups, from jocks to nerds. A well-worn cliché, difficult to observe now without a weary sigh and automatic disengagement. But Me and Earl gives this a refreshing twist as high school students are humorously compared to sovereign states and warring territories in Greg’s often-poetic monologues.
The film’s debt to Wes Anderson is hard to miss: the opening credits dissolve into a scene of jaunty music and a studious young artist. The story of the creative pre-adult is scattered with more of Anderson’s trademarks; serious subject matter surrounded by whimsical overtures, symmetrical shots, chapter titles, and a stylised reality. Even stop motion animation plays a role, dramatising Greg’s inner emotions in ephemeral cut-away scenes.
Much of the film toys with the opposition between honesty and social decorum. Greg veers between social awkwardness and creative spiel as he attempts to chart new territory whilst simultaneously navigating his own emotions as he finds his place in the world. The danger of a largely comedic film that deals with a serious subject is negotiating the balance between the two. Often films fail to navigate this pitfall, either failing on the humour or skimming only the surface level of emotional weight. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl skilfully avoids any such problems; the film is hilarious but leaves room for emotional impact.
Me and Earl owes much of it success to its fantastic actors and writing. Rachel’s alcohol-prone single mother (Molly Shannon) serves as a reminder of the darker realities of family life. The history teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) offers a refuge from the complexities of social life in high school, yet his macho character differs from the usual bookish charm of the likeable school authority figure. Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) shares his habit of poetic monologues, niche cinema and exotic food. He is not the traditional strict or neglectful father.
Mann’s role as Greg allows him to fully exhibit his vast range of acting talent, exploring the spectrum between the playful and the serious, the humorous and the emotional. Despite being stylised the film never feels artificial; the emotion always feels genuine. Olivia Cooke demonstrates a similar skill set in her varied fluctuation between the playful optimism and bitter pessimism of someone struggling through terrible hardship. Remarkable, also, is Ronald Cyler II as Earl. Although an actor of little experience in a supporting role, his talent is as visible as any and this is surely his breakout performance.
The movie constantly defeats expectations, only to set them up again and implode them once more. Overall, it is a touching portrayal of friendship, love, and the importance of creativity amidst everything. Undoubtedly one of the best films released this year.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl arrives in cinemas September 4th.