Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the debut feature film from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a reclusive, socially awkward and painfully self-aware teenager who survives the war-zone of high school by navigating the various social groups without establishing any meaningful relationships, chameleon-like. His only friend is Earl – his “co-worker” - with whom he shoots unique re-workings of classic movies (A Sockwork Orange; The 400 Bros etc.). This is interrupted when his overbearing parents force him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia.
You know the story – nerdy boy falls tragically in love with a sick girl, who teaches him valuable life lessons before dying, beautifully, in his arms. What separates Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from other such “teen tragedy” films (Love Story, A Walk to Remember, The Fault in Our Stars and so on) is that it knows this story too. Like Greg himself, the film is self-aware in the extreme, with a self-reflexive film literacy. Greg's mantra throughout - “this is the part where” - encapsulates this self-awareness: the film recognises the clichés of its genre and does its best to subvert them.
But, the film's main weakness is that it never fully escapes these clichés. The film is steeped in tropes – the inspiring teacher, the overbearingly liberal parents, the wise black sidekick, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As well-acted as these characters are (RJ Cyler is wonderful as Earl), they prevent the film from elevating above these stereotypes, as it aims to do. Even more frustratingly, the film touches on certain gender and racial politics without fully exploring or challenging them.
That said, the film manages to be extremely likeable. As mentioned above, both the central and supporting performances are excellent. Molly Shannon does an especially fantastic job of negotiating the comic, tragic and sympathetic as Rachel's mother. Moreover, the film has a palpably large heart, preventing its off-beat, self-referential tone from becoming too grating or sterile. This emotional depth is matched by the film's visual richness. The lush animated sequences and Greg and Earl's home movies stand out in particular. It is this – the film's warm heart and visual quirkiness – that proves the film's saving grace, even as its ending slips into sentimental lesson-learning.
So although Me and Earl and the Dying Girl never quite transcends the clichés it tries to subvert, it is difficult to be too cynical with a film as big-hearted, satisfyingly self-aware and visually rich as this.