An entertaining mix of comedy and serious drama in offbeat coming-of-age story
In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the “Me” is a klutzy, smart-mouthed high school senior named Greg. The “dying girl” is a pert classmate named Rachel, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg and his pal Earl are fledgling cinephiles trying to make a little DIY movie about, or with, or for, Rachel.
Greg is also the film’s frisky voice-over narrator. His movie-making efforts with Earl and the unfolding drama of Rachel’s illness provide the basic storyline, but some of the most engaging aspects of the film come by way of anecdotal digressions involving a generous array of comic-satiric secondary characters. Ultimately, the comedy and the drama converge in a moral and emotional awakening for Greg.
A crucial and sometimes perplexing twist in all this becomes increasingly evident, while also remaining mostly implicit. Gradually, we begin to realize that Greg is not an entirely reliable narrator. And the contradictions that crop up in his voice-overs signal something larger—despite his intelligence and ironic wit, Greg is drawing a blank when it comes to any kind of deeply felt emotion.
These perplexing elements are a limitation in some respects, but they are also one of the virtues of an entertaining tale that mixes comedy and drama. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s flippant and funny, but also quite serious. And it’s a comedy of teenage manners, and of suburban ones as well, with signs of social unrest and dysfunction leaking through a mock veneer of sitcom complacency.
Earl (RJ Cyler), who is African-American, plays at being raunchy and glib, but he turns out to be ahead of Greg in wisdom and courage. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is fiercely honest and off-handedly brave about her illness (which Earl recognizes and honors before anyone else). Glamorous-looking Madison (Katherine Hughes) overturns stereotypes left and right. Obsessive rapper Ill Phil and Derrick, the black-garbed Goth, are amusing caricatures, but not so much that their scary desperation gets glossed over.
Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) is a laid-back sociology professor whose very open mind is always working even though he never seems to leave the house. Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), the muscular, tattooed history teacher, serves as an impressively nonchalant mentor to Greg and Earl and as a key enabler for their precocious attraction to “classic cinema.”
Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) has a talent for gentle-but-persistent nagging that makes her an unexpectedly effective moral force in her son’s life. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) is a single mom who seems ridiculous in her neediness and desperation, but proves heroic in her emotional directness.
Writer Jesse Andrews adapted the screenplay from his own novel. He and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon deserve special credit for creating a richly entertaining movie that seems like it was never meant to be anything else.