An inspiring take on questions of life and death
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (cert. 12A), is an edgy but lovely film from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, as he moves from directing episodes of Glee to this high school story of friendship, compassion and frailty. It’s dedicated to his father, a doctor, who died as he started to make the film.
Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own 2012 novel, it features Greg (Thomas Mann), doing his best in his Pennsylvania high school to stay out of trouble by not identifying with any of the warring factions. It’s a tactic that’s stood him in good stead, and left him to cultivate his partnership with Earl (RJ Cyler), a black kid from the poor side of town.
They make home movies together, spoofs of their favourites – they range from Senior Citizen Kane to Brew Velvet and 2:48pm Cowboy. Werner Herzog features (in clips with Klaus Kinski from Burden of Dreams), but Powell and Pressburger seem a special interest (Pooping Tom), as they even have a miniature target and arrows for their versions of the Archers films.
What disturbs Greg’s routine is when his mother (Connie Britton) insists he takes a caring interest in Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl he barely knows, who has leukaemia. There begins an unlikely relationship, badged from day one as a “doomed friendship”, though Rachel’s mum (Moly Shannon) seems overly glad to see him.
Rachel may have physical problems, but she susses Greg’s poor view of his own personality, and guides him as he ponders whether to go to college. As she gets sicker, unreasonably feeling ugly when she loses her hair, even Greg’s encouragement not to give in seems like he wants to take away her choices.
Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman), very laid back with a taste for unlikely food, may offer homespun advice, but Greg is more likely to turn for support to one of his teachers, Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). He too has a taste for exotic food in the form of Asian soups, and there’s even a suggestion that the soup is laced with drugs.
Other characters add to the mix, not least the real oddity in school, lone rapper and drug dealer Ill Phil (Masam Holden). By contrast, hot girl Madison (Katherine C Hughes) takes an interest in Greg, or at least in his friendship with Rachel.
It’s just that whenever she’s near, Greg’s mind conjures up this cartoon version of what hot girls do to boys like him, a large moose stamping on a rodent. These animations punctuate the story, along with snippets of the films he and Earl have made.
Prompted by Madison, Greg tries to make a film specially for Rachel, but it proves harder than he expects, and he even falls out with Earl (his “coworker”, Greg calls him, trying to avoid the idea of friendship). As Rachel’s health deteriorates, the prospect of getting the film done keeps slipping.
It’s never mawkish, and some inappropriate responses to illness, as in “It’s all part of God’s plan”, are given short shrift (Greg and Rachel are Jewish). This tragicomic story has Greg’s narration to keep the flow, but the mix of laughter and tears makes it a sensitive treatment of serious illness.
Some of the jokes are simple, there’s a running joke about the sexual place of pillows, and, as Greg’s dad misses the point of sarcasm, it’s all done well enough to be very funny. The whole cast draw the best from their roles, though Olivia Cooke needs special mention for bringing “the dying girl” to life.
Despite winning both the audience and grand jury prizes at the Sundance Festival, the film did not do too well at the US box office. I loved its imaginative, funny, poignant treatment of facing illness and death, and it’s my favourite film so far this year.