Winner of the Sundance Film Festival, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl
by N. David Pastor
The anxiety of storytelling begins with something with which most writers are familiar: the beginning of the actual story. Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl, the first feature-length film by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, begins by attempting to placate this anxiety with a line borrowed from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” With this in mind, the story of Greg Gaines’ (Thomas Mann) senior year of high school unfolds.
Greg, the narrator of the film, is a middle-class, socially awkward teenager who, over the last eight years, has made every attempt to remain invisible in his day-to-day life. The logic behind this decision is simple: avoid making waves. Having lowered your expectations for his character, we see Greg as an offbeat loner charged by his mother (Connie Britton) with the impossible task of comforting Rachel, (Olivia Cooke) a girl in his year who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The film moves along at a moderate pace, occasionally interrupting the story to remind you that this is not The Fault In Our Stars, nor The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Remember what we said before about anxiety? It goes double for influence. This is a film that, in many ways, owes its context to the premise of several others that came before it, though it should be distinguished for its layered narrative and the consistency of its tone.
Moving along, Greg has a “friend” named Earl (RJ Clyer), as referenced in the title. It should be noted that Greg does not have friends due to a certain quirkiness inherited from his father (played by Nick Offerman), hence the quotation marks when applying the term; though the underlying subtext of not being able to introduce Earl, who happens to be black, is unfortunate, if not wholly unintentional. It is also unfortunate that his dialogue is often reduced to the word titties, but I digress.
Greg and Earl are childhood friends who make cleverly titled film parodies of classic films. Some of these include: Anatomy of a Burger, Senior Citizen Kane, The 400 Bros, to name a few. This can be considered an homage to Michel Gondry’s “sweded” films in Be Kind Rewind; in which case there are also several scenes of stop-motion animation that can also be found in his work. These Gondry-esque sequences work better in this scenario as Greg and Earl not only suffer from a lack of resources, but have the youthful and innocent charm of aimless creativity. The parodied films are interjected into the narrative with ease, never distracting from the pace of the film In fact, they provide an unexpected arc to the story when Greg is persuaded by another girl (Katherine C. Hughes) to make a film for Rachel.
The cinematography is striking throughout the film. There is a central theme of characters in our lives coming into focus over time, even after death. It is Greg’s history professor Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) who elaborates on this theme after speaking with Greg on the death of his father. If you were to watch this film a second time, it will become more obvious how each aspect of the story plays a part in preparing the audience for the death of Rachel. Greg even flatly denies this will happen and the film attempts to prey on our ability to be manipulated as an audience. This is a particularly difficult, yet refined aspect of storytelling. Not only does the film avoid revealing itself to you, but it forces you to question why we feel the burden of addressing this question in the first place. I have to admit that I had to reorient myself several times during the film.
Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl is an example of a reluctant, slightly distorted form of storytelling. This forces the audience to constantly stay in the moment. Rather than surprise, the film merely arrives at a more developed part of the story. The camera, which often delays our perception by waiting to come into focus or quickly changing focus, is a metaphorical representation of this immediacy.
In the end, Rachel’s character does come into focus. In that sense, her death only magnifies how difficult it is to notice the tiniest details, the kind of details that escape us when we are not paying attention. And when the ones we love are gone, we thirst for these kinds of details. However, this is not the defining moment of the film. That belongs to the night of prom where Greg finally shows Rachel a version of the film he had been working on for her with Earl. It is yet another moment that fits into the anticipation of the narrative. We know that according to Greg, he makes a film so bad that it kills someone. Bad is a placeholder for the word serendipitous as he continues to be an unreliable narrator.
It is a moment so touching that it finally makes the audience aware of the power in this story. For Rachel, it is the end of her short life. The parodied films had become such a comfort to her that we can arrive at a moment that almost comes across as too scripted. Perhaps this is the case, but the film avoids abusing the sentimentality of its storyline that eventually it should be allowed to indulge. For Greg, it is the beginning of an entirely new life, one filled with the promise of empathy and meaning: two things that previously did not exist in his insular world. The film is forthright in this transition, knowing to slow the pace and not only show Greg’s change in perception, but adjust to it. By the end, you’ve seen the best of times and the worst of times. And like Rachel’s revision of Greg’s college essay, there is room for growth and maturation. It is Greg who decides the story is worth telling, sending off the film to explain his poor academics over the past few months. The film is a story inside of a story, waiting until its final moments to be affirmed. In this way, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a film that explores the limits of empathy without taking itself too seriously in the process.