Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Director: Afonso Gomez-Rejon
Cast: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II
Runtime: 104 min. Genre: Drama
Literary critics say that James Joyce’s Ulysses attempts to encapsulate within its single story all the great western literatures; then the movie “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” pays somewhat idiosyncratic homage to Ulysses in a way that its protagonist, a high school senior who unwillingly (at first) befriends a girl who’s dying of leukemia, reproduces a bunch of western film masterpieces (with twerked titled such as “Senior Citizen Cane,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Brew Velvet,” and “Raging Bullshit” just to name a few) in his pastime. His affinity with film-making encounters a real challenge when he has to make a movie for that dying girl, culminating with a magnum opus, a most creative and beautiful avant-garde short film I’ve ever seen. Awarded both Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at 2015 Sundance Film Festival, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” just might snatch the-movie-of-the-year label with its sincere and ingenious portrait of high school kids coming to terms with friendship, art, and mortality.
For our protagonist Greg, invisibility was something he valued most during his high school years. He is insecure, self-hating, and self-effacing. One day, his mother forces him to visit a girl who has just diagnosed with leukemia. The first visit goes awkward, but the girl accepts the boy’s gawkiness as his genuine attribute that often makes her laugh, and his visits become frequent. Along the way, his friend Earl (whom Greg refers merely as his co-worker because they make movies together) joins the gang and they spend time together, just talking about otherwise trivial daily events if not for the looming sense of death.
Greg narrates the story in the film, and he constantly reminds the viewers that she does not die, that indeed she is cured and gets well; however we can’t help but suspect his motives for reiterating such fact. The movie works so much in its ‘meta’ level too: there is a narrator within a movie that speaks of his past as a story, and movies within a movie. In addition, Greg’s subconsciousness often blends with reality (magical realism not unlike in “Birdman”), taking us deep into the mind of our protagonist.
A movie with a young girl dying of a cancer surely can end up being a schmaltz, but surprisingly, so much laughing moments accompany this so-called “doomed friendship.” Greg may be awkward and naive, but his kind heart is genuine. And when Greg and Rachel are watching the movie Greg has made for Rachel, she can’t help but cry because she knows that she will miss all this beauty in the world if she doesn’t exist in it anymore, a beauty borne of love, friendship, and innocence.
The movie is definitely an experimental film, but it is an experimental film that speaks to us all. The young actors are peerless (Olivia Cooke who plays the dying girl shaved off her hair to play the sick girl); they submit to the fear of death in their young age in a most subtle yet convincing way. They do not know how to resist that fear, this ultimate unknown that looms above them during the time when there are so many other unknowns ahead of them. Would Greg become more mature from this experience? Would he be able to make a film out of the story he tells us through this film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”? It is this encounter with unknowns that leads us into the path to adulthood, and watching the film, we feel that we can never reach the end of that path, or we feel that we don’t want to if all the experiences portrayed in the film, whether happy or sad, can entail such wonders of this life.