I can’t remember the last time I bawled so much, feeling such hatred for life, while still smiling and loving every minute of a film. I felt so many feelings during the hour and a half I sat in my theatre seat watching the acclaimed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, which received a standing ovation at Sundance, and I still find myself feeling a different mix of emotions as I sit trying to come to a solid conclusion of what I really took away from the film. Honestly, I’m still not overly sure what to say, so excuse my potential flip-flops as I work my way through it all.
A simple place to begin, though, would be a summary. Basically, this movie is about friendship and discovering more and more about a person, including the push and pull of this kind of relationship when it comes to support and tough love. There are times to push someone outside of their barriers and there are times to support their decision for not always challenging barriers. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl looks at the different stages of friendship and the discovery of a person’s true self in the face of obstacles. It’s about Greg (Thomas Mann), his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), their film parodies, and how a new “doomed” friendship with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl just diagnosed with cancer, changes Greg’s overall outlook on life.
Greg’s ability to make nearly every situation adorably awkward and weird, along with Rachel’s sarcasm and knack for diffusing awkward moments make their budding relationship a heart-warmer. Their quirky conversations and inside jokes—plus the lack of pushing the narrative into some romantic story—make this film refreshingly lovable. The onscreen chemistry between Cooke and Mann honestly makes me want to relive high school, but without the illness part. And that’s what makes it so complicated…
Because Greg narrates the story and we’re forced to uncover who Rachel truly is through his eyes, we’re often forced to also see Rachel as “the dying girl.” That’s one main point I struggle with. It’s hard to see much agency in Rachel’s role when she’s relegated to a hospital bed, but then there are times we’re able to get a fuller image of her character. It all depends on how Greg is viewing her at that time. That’s not to say Rachel has absolutely no agency or that she’s a flat stereotype; she does exercise some actions outside Greg’s control and we do eventually get a fuller picture of who she is, but I struggle with the truth that this all seems to fall within the last quarter of the film.
Where things get more complicated for me is looking at the treatment of the other female characters in the film. I want to love this film unconditionally, but I can’t entirely get past its treatment of the women in the film. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) comes across as nagging. It’s that stereotype of the overinvolved mother who’s always on her teenage son’s case about something. Then there’s Rachel’s mother, the outrageous drunk. We don’t see much development in her character and even in sections that seem like they should naturally be sentimental, her statements end up making her the butt of the joke. Greg seems to just push her words aside as foolish, drunken chatter. Then there’s the pretty, popular girl from high school who’s represented in Greg’s narration by a moose who sneaks up on him, manipulates him with her charm, then crushes him. Aside from Rachel, the women in this film are barely real people.
I really want to say that I loved this film, but the flat female characters that are more negative stereotypes than the secondary male characters (such as the cool teacher, the odd but understanding father, and the caring best friend who shares his friend’s quirks but balances him out) make it difficult for me to say so without adding some kind of qualifier. So, I suppose that if I had to come to some conclusion, it would be this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a must-see comedy-drama that’s both heartwarming and heartwrenching—just understand that it’s focus is on revealing the balances in friendship and how life always continues to unfold, and not on usurping flat stereotypes.