Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has quite an assortment of IMDb credits to his name with little in common except major success (Argo, Glee and American Horror Story are just a few.) But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is definitely the most unique of the bunch. The indie dramedy’s budget is comparatively small, the leading actors are mostly unknown and the screenplay is novelist Jesse Andrews’ first. So how did this little movie at Sundance catch the attention of Fox Searchlight to the tune of twelve million dollars: the biggest film purchase at the festival to date?
The main reason is marvelous casting. Thomas Mann (Greg, our narrator,) RJ Cyler (Earl) and Olivia Cooke (Rachel, the “dying girl,”) fit together perfectly to form the titular trio. Greg is a lovable, totally flawed Pittsburgh teenager who Mann plays with humor and more than enough truthful awkwardness. He begins the tale by explaining his strategy for getting through high school unscathed: dress neutrally, be a chameleon and quickly bounce from clique to clique to remind everyone in school that you can be trusted. This way, he can concentrate on making art and figuring out where he really fits. When his mother asks him to spend some quality time with Rachel, an acquaintance from school who’s been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg is hesitant to get too invested and break his cycle of faux friendship.
Earl, who Greg refers to as his “coworker,” is actually his best friend and has been since elementary school. In their time together, Greg and Earl film hilariously bad spoofs of famous movies with titles like “Senior Citizen Cane,” “A Sockwork Orange” and “2:48pm Cowboy.” This is their outlet, their reason for being and their one source of pride. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is RJ Cyler’s first major film, and he lends a very believable (if slightly indifferent) essence to Earl throughout much of the movie. But when the stakes are raised, Cyler handles himself like a seasoned pro, serving up hard truths to Greg and driving some of the most pivotal moments.
Olivia Cooke’s performance as leukemia-battling Rachel has stayed with me the most. Rachel isn’t a romantic lead and she isn’t just a “dying girl.” She’s a complicated, lost, thoughtful character. In a particularly painful moment, Greg visits Rachel in the hospital to show her a film he and Earl have made for her. He uses a makeshift projector to screen it on one of the hospital walls, and even though we aren’t shown exactly what the film contains, we don’t need to. Cooke’s performance here is the definition of nuanced: with just a few breaths, tears and small movements she conveys a huge amount of feeling. Other members of the cast include Connie Britton and Nick Offerman as Greg’s eclectic parents, Molly Shannon as Rachel’s boozy (but loving) mother, John Bernthal as the guys’ very cool history teacher, and a handful of young up-and-comers.
There’s an extremely genuine, autobiographical feel to the film, and that seems intentional. Fun fact: the shots in Greg’s house were actually filmed in the Jess Andrews’ childhood home in Pennsylvania. You’ll find no real villains in this story, except for leukemia and other unfair circumstances. No losers, winners or martyrs here either. Nothing overwrought or unbelievable. So, ignore the trendy poster and forget about the quirk factor. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t tear-jerking hipster fluff, it’s a love letter to filmmaking and the transformative power of all art.