It’s not often that I go into a film with no expectations. I always end up seeing a trailer and reading reviews that can cloud my judgement on a film. Sometimes my expectations are too high and I end up really disappointed, other times I’m surprised when a film I had low expectations for turns out to be amazing. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one where I had no preconceptions. I didn’t see any of the trailers and I read an equal amount of positive and negative reviews, giving me a neutral image of the film and no expectations for the quality, and I think it’s best that I went in like that. Having no expectations opened me up to be incredibly surprised by the film and moved by it’s story.
The plot revolves around Greg, a socially awkward teenager in his final year in high school who has no real plans for the future and believes the best way to remain invisible is to hide in plain sight, retain just enough of a connection to all the high school social circles so that he’s both in and out of all of them. The only person he has a connection to is Earl, who Greg considers to be a co-worker due to them making, by their own admission, terrible film parodies. This changes when Greg’s mum forces him to spend time with Rachel, a girl living near him who has been diagnosed with leukimia and over time, a friendship develops between the two. Normally, this type of film would infuriate me, it has all the makings of an overly sentimental love story in the vein of The Fault in our Stars, but here it works and for one key reason: it’s not a love story. Throughout the film, there is no indication of any romantic attraction between Greg and Rachel, it’s all friendship. It shows the importance of just having someone to talk to during these events and the friendship between Greg and Rachel is really natural, as much as the two were forced into it, the actual relationship doesn’t feel forced in the slightest. It also does a good job at exposing the selfish attitudes of someone like Greg. It’s clear that he has no ambitions and in trying to please everyone to remain invisible, he has no real connection to anyone, he doesn’t understand the true details of people, a point which comes across really well in a conversation he has with his history teacher and the final scene of the film. It’s also clear that, without the influence of Rachel, and by extension his parents, he would have no future. Greg makes it clear that he doesn’t want to go to university because he feels like he wouldn’t fit in, and virtually every other character in the film calls Greg out on this attitude, especially Rachel who forces him to apply. We see that Greg does have talent and some form of drive but his own selfish attitudes are holding him back, he needs to understand empathy in order to understand how selfish he’s being. This is also a good time to bring in Earl. The film makes it clear that Earl has been trying to get Greg to open up, mainly so Greg can accept him as a friend. All of the major developments for Greg to become a better person hinge on Earl getting Greg to admit his talents to people, mainly when Earl first tells Rachel about Greg’s filmmaking and when Greg rejects these efforts to make him better Earl cuts off ties with him, but as the film goes on, we see that Earl is a true friend to Greg, unafraid to defend him from attacks but willing to call Greg out for his selfish attitudes. The whole film is about getting Greg to appreciate his talents, lose his selfishness and understand life better and, for someone as isolated and selfish as Greg, it could only be through an experience with death.
That being said, not all of the plot elements work. There are a few characters that don’t really work in the grand scheme of things and plot points that don’t fully get resolved. These are moments that would probably have worked better on the page than on the screen. Individually, these moments do create some good laughs and some good character moments, but as a whole, they don’t really add much to the film experience.
The cast meanwhile really sell the nature of the plot. I’ve said all I need to about Greg previously so I won’t repeat myself here, suffice it to say, Thomas Mann does a great job selling both the selfish nature of the character and the eventual reform of the character and understanding how to become a better person. This is matched by an incredible performance by Olivia Cooke as Rachel. She brilliantly shows the pain that a disease like leukemia can cause and the need to have someone just talk to you and make you laugh, with the chemistry between her and Mann nailing the relationship between the characters. When things start to go downhill for Rachel in terms of her treatment, Cooke brilliantly shows the pain that the disease is giving her and we see her will to live start to decline and in these scenes, Cooke’s performance is incredible, showing how difficult her decisions have been to make and I came incredibly close to crying during these scenes (which is rare for me, the only films I’ve seen that have actively led to me crying are The Elephant Man, WALL-E and Up). RJ Cyler meanwhile does a great job as Earl, his more optimistic attitude being a great counterpoint for Greg and it’s clear that, without Earl, Greg would not have been able to withstand high school. There’s a bit of a Herzog-Kinski parallel between Greg and Earl that the film makes clear, with Earl wanting to get Greg to express himself and Greg being a selfish, egomaniac who doesn’t want to and has to be forced to. There’s also a good performance from Katherine Hughes as Madison, a classmate of Greg’s and another person who tries to get Greg to open up to Rachel through his films, mainly be encouraging Greg to make a film for Rachel, and it’s clear that she has sympathy for Rachel’s situation and sort of understands Greg and does what she feel is best for both of them and, again, it’s great that the character doesn’t become a love interest. There’s great comic relief from Nick Offerman as Greg’s Dad, adding his really dry comedic style to the film as a pretentious sociology writer, Jon Bernthal, who’s a lot of fun as Greg’s history teacher, having some of the best laughs in the film, along with a really great dramatic moment. Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mum is also worthy of mention as she brilliantly shows how someone would react to their kid getting diagnosed with leukemia and the difficulty she has in accepting what is happening to Rachel. There’s also a fun little cameo from Hugh Jackman that provides a great laugh.
On a technical side, the film is quite clearly trying to emulate the films of Wes Anderson, at the start at least. The use of chapter headings and the way the shots are composed, along with the use of stop motion, is very reminiscent of Anderson’s work but as the film goes on, this style starts to become less prominent as the true weight of what is happening to Rachel becomes clear. Special mention in the technicals has to go to the film parodies themselves. The titles of them alone were enough to get a laugh out of me and the production elements in each of these films does enough work to recreate the style of the original films whilst putting their own spin on it, special mention going to A Sockwork Orange. As said before, there is a bit of Herzog and Kinski in the characters of Greg and Earl and this comes across in the style of the film as well, with there being a clear influence of Herzog in the direction and cinematography that’s subtle enough where you wouldn’t notice it unless you know the films of Herzog. The music by Brian Eno meanwhile is great at setting the tone for the film, working especially well at the end of the film and being one of the main elements that created such a strong emotional reaction from me.
Overall, this is a film I had no expectations for going in and ended up loving. Films like this normally infuriate me but when they’re done right, they can create great characters, memorable moments and brilliant stories. This is another case similar to that of The Perks of Being a Wallflower for me, and in many ways this film works as a bit of a companion piece to that one, showing the importance of friendship in the hardest time of a persons life and I have no reservations in recommending this film.
My Rating: 5/5