Last year, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash came out of the Sundance Film Festival with tremendous buzz after taking home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It’s an extremely rare feat, one that has only been accomplished by a handful of other films – and this year, someone did it again.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), an awkward teenager who has managed to navigate the complicated waters of high school by maintaining casual relationships with each clique and social group, while never actually swearing allegiance to any of them. It’s a good strategy, allowing him to remain on the border of anonymity, which seems far easier to Greg than forming meaningful relationships with any of his peers.
Greg’s carefully honed strategy is thrown into upheaval when his mother (Connie Britton) insists that he befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg is vehemently against this idea from the start, but is forced to grudgingly acquiesce when he realize his mother won’t take no for an answer.
Assuming that Greg feels sorry for her, Rachel wants nothing to do with him at first, but when Greg makes it clear that he’s only visiting at his mother’s behest, Rachel slowly begins to let her guard down. It doesn’t take long for an actual friendship to develop, although Greg (who narrates the film) is quick to point out that this is not the typical high school love story, and that he and Rachel are not destined to lock eyes and fall into each other’s arms.
Instead, most of their times is spent watching movies that Greg creates with Earl (RJ Cyler), his only other genuine friend – but since Greg has issues with letting people get too close to him, he repeatedly refers to Earl as his “coworker.” The movies in question are parodies of film classics, with such titles as Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange, and they’re responsible for some of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s most hilarious moments.
When word of Greg and Earl’s filmmaking begins to spread among their classmates, Greg’s longtime crush (Katherine C. Hughes) suggests that he graduate from crafting parodies to creating original material, pressuring him to make a film for Rachel. The boys spark to the idea, but Greg quickly realizes that it’s much easier to spoof someone else’s work than to let his own voice shine through his art.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a love letter to teenage creativity, and a beautifully touching tale of friendship. It deftly avoids the tropes and clichés of most coming-of-age stories, thanks to a whip-smart screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapted from his own original novel) and careful direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. But even the most talented creative team can be hampered by a cast that isn’t up to par – thankfully, that’s not the case here.
Mann and Cooke are absolutely dynamite in their roles, and the charismatic Cyler offers the perfect blend of poignancy and comic relief. There’s also a stellar supporting cast that includes Jon Bernthal playing wildly against type as Greg and Earl’s history teacher, Nick Offerman as Greg’s bathrobe-wearing father, and Molly Shannon in a scene-stealing role as Rachel’s wine-loving mother.
Comparisons between Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and last year’s The Fault in Our Stars are inevitable, thanks to a few similar elements, but the connection formed between Greg and Rachel is fundamentally different – and besides, as Greg promises us in his opening monologue, the “dying girl” doesn’t actually die. This isn’t the sort of film where the audience just bides their time waiting for the other shoe to drop and all the sad stuff to happen. It’s a celebration of creativity, youthful ambition, and most importantly, of life itself – and it’s the best film of 2015 so far.
Smartly written, sharply directed and wonderfully acted, it's a coming-of-age story that sidesteps the usual tropes to deliver a wholly unique and original look at adolescence. It's clever, it's funny, it's touching, and it's the best film of 2015 so far.