Who would have thought that my top ten films of 2015 would include two high school movies? Not me, that’s for sure. First Dope and now I have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Both films deal with two characters that find themselves on the outside of most social groups, only to be thrust into social interactions through unforeseen circumstances. In Dope, it’s by accidentally walking off with a whole bunch of drugs. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it’s a forced hangout by the protagonist’s mother.
High schooler Greg does a great job at bouncing around social circles in order to keep himself at arms-length from everyone. He spends just enough time with everyone and is likable enough to be acquaintances with the whole school, but not enough to grow any lasting relationships. A rolling stone gathers no moss, so to speak.
The only exception is his friend, Earl, only he will only admit to being coworkers with Earl. Together, they make films; more specifically, they make parody films based on some of their favorite art house flicks that Greg’s dad turned them on to. The films have a “sweded” quality to them, to borrow a term from Be Kind Rewind, and they are basically the only things that Greg shows any true interest in. But when Greg’s mom meddles in his life, by forcing him to spend time with Rachel, who’s been newly diagnosed with leukemia, it forces Greg to create a bond with someone, despite the likelihood it would not last past graduation.
It seems like every year, there’s that one quirky indie film that really captures something. Juno, Garden State, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and now Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. This film manages to capture a feeling that I along with a lot of people can relate to: the idea that keeping everything at arms-length can keep you from being hurt. Greg’s whole world is a defense mechanism. He floats through high school barely trying, moves on from everyone before he gets too close, and makes light of every situation he finds himself in; even someone else’s terminal illness.
When Rachel comes into his world, more than he expected or wanted, she forces him to start to feel things like a real human being. He starts to grow feelings for her; whether they’re romantic or platonic is inconsequential, as it is essentially the first for either. She’s the catalyst for him to start caring about his own life. I hesitate to call Rachel a “manic pixie dream girl”, which is the common trope of this sort of movie; she doesn’t offer a free-spirited look on life or even tries to bring him out of his shell. She straight-talks him the way only a person with a death sentence can talk to someone. She forces him to get his shit together, because he has no excuse; he’s not dying.
I watched The Fault in Our Stars last year, and to be honest, I hated it. I found the cancer aspect to be exploitative. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is able to handle such a sensitive subject with a lighter touch. Sometimes it even feels like a bit of a plot device, to give our protagonist a shock to his well-manicured existence. Those moments are fleeting, however, and it never overshadows the heartfelt tone of a boy afraid to care falling for a girl fighting for her life.
Thomas Mann, as Greg, gives a solid performance in the main role. It’s akin to Logan Lerman’s performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. His character is not only thrust into a social interaction he’s uncomfortable with, but it goes even a step further with reality that would tough to handle at any age. The supporting cast boasts familiar faces like Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, and Molly Shannon, but it’s Mann, Olivia Cooke (Rachel), and RJ Cyler (Earl) that really stand out in this film.
Offbeat, heartfelt, and boasting an emotional climax (complete with an incredible Brian Eno piece), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of 2015’s best little movies.