“It’s like a menu for your future.”
In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, required curriculum for film lovers, the author speaks of moments which define. For the average Joe that could be getting their dream job. For the traveler it might be seeing the Northern Lights in the Arctic tundra. Perhaps for the lover it is a perfect eve on a perfectly dewy damp blanket with the perfect companion. However, for the minority of us, we find significance and measure through stories, film in particular. I remember my first perplexing date with Akira Kurosawa, projecting Rashomon onto my bedroom wall. Or nestled into a dive cinema, late for a get together, experiencing the tragic hopelessness of The Exterminating Angel. And how could I forget the embodiment of love through It’s a Wonderful Life, when it finally transcended Christmas cliché to become a personal lifestyle/ideology. This is me; this is who I am. And few experiences, if any, matched my time spent watching, critiquing, adoring, and falling in love with this film. While I watch a movie, my pen and my pad make up the endlessly scrawling and unintelligible voice that I have never been able to harness and communicate through the spoken word. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl left me in my normal state of speechlessness. Except this time I was not nervous or ashamed; I was thankful.
In any review, I try to write with a conversational tone. To deconstruct grammatical BS and create a dialogue. So excuse me for the one-sided and self-absorbed blether thus far. When a film like this comes along that really speaks to you, it’s hard not to make it about oneself, because that’s what great movies (or anything, really) can do. From the zooming shots to the horizontal tracking to the pure observationalist camera placement, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl literally draws us in. It uses the style of a Wes Anderson film while substituting the largely cold-hearted pretentiousness or ineffectual characters of that director’s worlds for a John Hughes level of honesty and a remarkable illustration of a story we all know…that we’ve all lived in one way or another.
This journey through high school is from the perspective of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). He’s tall, skinny, and self-deprecating to the point that it’s selfish. Greg is the guy who gives everyone high fives or fist bumps and says witty one liners to every social group, effortlessly gliding through the linoleum floors of his Pittsburgh High School while just as easily succeeding at his own self-imposed ostracization. He’s so afraid of labels and friendship that he even goes so far as to call his one and only buddy Earl (RJ Cyler) his “coworker.” That’s because they make films. Their pun-filled abridged versions of Criterion classics are gut-busting, and I’m sure the man behind me in the theater, screaming like a wild howler monkey, would happily attest to this fact. But as you might have noticed from the title, there is more to this story, and it’s not always happy.
Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is the dying girl and her ill fortune is Leukemia. Greg’s mother forces him to befriend her, to spend time with her and make her feel better, and their initial hesitance grows into a bond which refreshingly exceeds the typical boundaries of a high school boy and a high school girl. Relationships, especially when depicted in this age group, are so sex obsessed that we often forget that a platonic bond is possible or that people this age can be intellectually compatible with no intention of under the covers play or backseat of the car fooling around. Jesse Andrews, adapting his best-selling YA novel (see this and skip the book, the film is far superior), improves the story in every imaginable facet. He cut the unnecessary, entirely changed the last third, and emphasized the characters rather than the situations. Like Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl last year, Andrews displays such an unselfish approach to strip away what needed to be discarded from his own material in order to make the film work. And judging from the laughs and sobs and glued eyes of my fellow audience members, he and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon didn’t miss a beat.
Gomez-Rejon managed to take a familiar tale of growing up and deliver a final product unlike anything else that’s been done. There’s stop motion, claymation, POV shots and tremendous steadicam work. This is the breath of fresh air the genre needed. No, it’s not flawless. In fact it’s rather rushed and the character balance is out of proportion, but when a story hits you this hard, when it makes you, as they say, “feel all the feels,” you forget about the problems. That’s a credit to Gomez-Rejon’s obvious passion for the project, as well as the all around work from the cast. Thomas Mann is no longer the kid you see as a worry-wart turned Project X partier. He’s a real actor with dramatic skills and great comedic timing. And RJ Cyler, slightly underused here, steals every scene he’s in, emoting such staggering bad-part-of-town indifference and potluck smarts that you know who he is with one look and one line. However, this film involves cancer, and Olivia Cooke is beyond beautiful as the sick and deteriorating Rachel. Cooke’s eyes are pools of wonder, sadness, and love. She could have not spoken a single word and you’d still have known precisely what she was thinking. Every actor nails it, but Cooke is absolutely breathtaking. She’s as expressive, raw, and spellbinding as a young Giulietta Masina.
I was lucky enough to see an early screening of the film at the legendary Chicago Music Box Theatre. 6 rows back, section right, a statue of a cherub holding a grapevine behind my shoulder. It’s the kind of place where you see the EXIT signs and would never push the door open. You don’t need to go outside to see the light. That’s because when Dennis Scott’s last overture note on the organ hits and the receding red velvet curtain makes way to the flickering light of the camera, illuminating the room and the faces of the crowd and every particle of dust, you feel at home. And on this night, with this crowd, with this outstanding film, the building was literally alive. It was, far and away, the most visceral experience I’ve ever had in a theater. Writing this paragraph gave me goosebumps.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl finds humor in anxiety and anger, as well as drama through resentment and love. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges that during our formative years, on the precipice of adulthood, it is what we choose to create or choose to avoid that becomes the fabric of the quilt of the rest of our lives. This film really is all of the easy adjectives like sad and funny and dramatic. But it’s also optimistic, sophisticated, and above all enlightening. I know some people will not love this movie nearly as much as I did. That’s the simple truth. But I would be stunned if someone left this film less aware of life or of themselves. I sat outside the theater for about 15 minutes once it finished, making sure to take it all in. Me and Earl and Dying Girl is not just a movie; it’s an experience, and one that had I authored The Moviegoer so many years ago, would have been towards the top of my list. This is why we go to the movies.
“But somehow it was reassuring as well.”
Rating: 5 out of 5