Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and based on Jesse Andrews’ 2012 novel of the same name, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a clever and emotionally potent piece of work. This 2015 film does track through familiar ground, but Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung put together an aesthetic feast that matches the emotional weight of the subject matter.
What separates Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from similar pictures is its commitment to detail. It follows a self-centred lead character, the “Me” that comes first in the title, and views the world through a cinematic lens because that’s how Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines sees things. His life, up until the tale begins at least, has always been captured in ridiculous frames.
But the self-loathing Gaines is in for it when he’s effectively forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) because she’s been diagnosed with cancer. He arrives reluctantly and tells the girl that he’s there because he has to be, which doesn’t go over well. But a friendship blooms, with Gaines and his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) sharing the movies they’ve made together.
Rachel begins chemotherapy and her condition worsens. Greg has a hard time dealing with it. He doesn’t want to feel the way he does, but he can’t deal with the complex emotions that rise within. He lashes out and all the while Rachel is getting worse. To make matters worse, Greg has done literally no work at school.
This isn’t a movie about a girl dying of cancer. It’s not a movie that sentimentalizes the disease or presents the two characters as condemned romantic leads. It’s a movie about perspective, about the forced perspective of Greg. This may seem an odd slant, especially given his inherent selfishness in relation to what Rachel is going through.
But viewing the world through Greg’s eyes allows the audience to come up with some unforeseen riches, especially as the character evolves. Rachel doesn’t sit around dying or murmuring pitiful platitudes. She has her own shit and she has no interest in watching Greg’s self-loathing. He’s throwing life away. She’s holding on. Barely.
Every moment of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is earned. Gomez-Rejon and Chung craft a series of painterly scenes, choosing restraint at times and opting for high art at others. There are long, scuttling shots through the flea market cafeteria, a straight line of noise. And there’s a static shot during an argument that chills to the bone.
The lens also illustrates the emotional distance of characters, like when Earl and Greg have a fight. They jockey for position in a familiar room, with neither of them willing to give up space. Chung treats this with graphic conspicuousness, pushing one character into the left side of the frame and shunting the other to the right.
Chung also builds to an impossibly wide frame at times, especially at school. This illustrates how lost Greg is in the oblivion. Sometimes it’s hard to spot him in the frame. When he first visits Rachel, the images seem just as wide. As they draw closer in friendship, her room isn’t the inexplicable squirrel-infested woodland of pillows and books it initially seems.
The focus on the cinematic is important because it represents how Greg sees the world and it represents how Rachel loses herself. She feeds on Greg’s awful movies because it’s how she learns about him. He shares that part of his soul in part out of a foot-dragging sense of self and in part because it’s the only way he can effectively communicate.
While it’s tempting to suggest that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about the “dying girl,” it’s really not. It’s more about platonic muddles, about sorting through life’s mess, about “research.” Gomez-Rejon weaves the constructs, using Greg’s film for Rachel as an outline for sifting through the emotional contours. And when the tears come, they come honestly.