It would be easy to write Me and Earl and the Dying Girl off as just another romance involving high school students and cancer, particularly in the wake of last year’s The Fault in Our Stars. But such an assumption would be unfair to this film. As adapted by writer Jesse Andrews from his novel, and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl manages to be emotionally powerful without leaning too heavily on sentiment, while rooting its humor in a certain darkness without becoming inappropriate, and indulging in quirk without letting the quirk consume the film.
The “Me” of the title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), who it should be noted is a textbook unreliable narrator. His voiceover does provide information that may not be understood just based on what’s on the screen, but his narration at times clashes with occasional captions that separate parts of the story. Greg is introduced as a socially awkward senior whose ambivalence about his place in life extends to his plans for his future. The only friend he has, Earl (RJ Cyler), is repeatedly referred to as a co-worker by Greg. The work the two do involves a series of home movies they’ve made since elementary school, all of which parody film classics and are kept assembled in Greg’s home. His general apathy for life is thrown, though, when his mother pushes him towards neighbor Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.
The relationship between Greg and Rachel develops organically, and is refreshingly not romantic in the way similar films would indicate. While Greg and Rachel obviously develop feelings for each other, there’s no suggestion the two might actually try anything romantic. At the same time, the knowledge of Rachel’s limited time creates a relationship that’s stronger than a standard platonic friendship. It also allows the characters – Greg in particular – to remain true to themselves. Greg is not a likable character, and Mann isn’t afraid to show that unlikable side.
The film is also exceptionally witty, and plays its comedy in an understated way that helps keep the film from being bogged down by the seriousness of Rachel’s condition for most of its running time. A scene later in the film shifts the film’s tone, though, and the way it’s shot – in a single, wide take by Gomez-Rejon – makes Rachel’s illness all the more powerful. The story hits hard as it reaches its conclusion, but its shift feels organic, and it’s handled with grace.