Coming of Age: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Earl and Greg watching their remake of a classic film while surrounded by a library of great books and great films.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, is a film starring Thomas Mann, as Greg, RJ Cyler as Earl, and Olivia Cooke as Rachael. The film is a bildungsroman, (coming of age story)  adapted from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews about the value of friendship and how it sustains one through some of the most daunting times in life. It’s about the awkwardness of character, the feeling of not belonging, and the loneliness that it can bring. It captures the essence that “Life is for Service” even if that means serving one’s friends. Additionally, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an independent film mostly about Greg, a senior in high school, and the relationships that he has with his best friend (although he is afraid to acknowledge him as his best friend for fear of losing the friendship), and Rachael, a girl at his school who is dying from leukemia. Although he barely knows her, Greg’s mother coerces him to spend time with Rachael and he acquiesces.  It is through this resistance that we come to know Greg. Greg and Earl, through the prompting of Rachael’s friend, decide with reservation, to make a film for Rachael in order to encourage her during her illness. Through this film, the true meaning of friendship becomes evident. The story shows us that a friend loves at all times and that friendship is not without conflict and not without disappointment.  One must be willing to set his hurt and disappointment aside in order to support a friend during “the best of times and the worst of times.” This film has great writing, great structure, great acting, great cinematography, and a beautifully sentimental ending.

From L to R: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and RJ Cyler
Eating breakfast with students who survived the turmoil of high school. L to R: Sheinese Clement, Kenisha Fraser, the selfie queen, and me.

The screenplay with intermittent narration, staged in parts that reflect the sentiments of the characters during their last year in high school, accurately depicts teenage life for many students who have a low opinion of themselves and who do not seem to fit into any social clique. As a result of feeling alienated, Greg and Earl bond with one of their teachers who appears to be as unconventional as they are. The film captures the loneliness of life and how one can have esoteric interests that cause friendship with others to be limited. Greg’s interest in foreign cinematek causes him to only have one friend, Earl.  He and Earl parody classic films. They spend most of their time having lunch with a teacher because they do not engage positively with other students in the cafeteria, a place of conflict that they rather do without. Their teacher has taught them pithy maxims such as “Respect the Research” and “Life is for Service.”   All that matters in the end is friendship and having someone who will be supportive through the worst of times.  These friends do that for each other. Each part of the film shows them in different locations and how their friendship develops.  We see Greg at home, at school, and at Rachel’s home.  There is conflict in every part of the film. The narration helps us understand Greg’s internal feelings and struggles and shows us how he navigates through the conflict.

The casting for this film is perfect. Each actor fully captures the essence of his or her character. Through the language, through the nonverbal communication and through gesticulations, the audience is able to see the characters develop over the course of the film. These actors act with great style and originality.  Mann accurately portrays, through his body language, a student who is having difficulty accepting himself. The way he moves, the way he holds his head, even his speech cadence is of one who has a low self-esteem. Cyler, who may be seen as stereotypical, is not at all stereotypical. Although he lives in an impoverished neighborhood and he knows how to fight, he is anything but the stereotypical African-American young man.  He shows his love for his friend, Greg, with deep heart-felt action. He moves and dresses with a style all his own. The rhythm with which he walks and his articulation of speech keep the audience in tune with the action. The fight scene between him and Greg was awesomely choreographed, although fighting is not condoned. With Greg’s low self-esteem, it was clear that he would not have the fortitude of character to win the fight, even if he had the strength to win.  Also when Earl comes to rescue Greg during a fight, Earl is at his best in the film. Olivia Cooke, was great from beginning to end. Her character was the tool used to help Greg understand the true meaning of friendship. The scene with her and Greg near the end of the film evoked much emotion from me. I could feel both the happiness and the sorrow from Cooke’s actions. While watching the film that both Greg and Earl made for her, I could feel the emotional pain that Rachael experienced and its impact on Greg.

The cinematography gives an added dimension to the play.  We see video of the homes of the characters, video from the characters themselves, and from different vantage points or angles. Parts of the film include films within the film itself. The cinematography by South Korea’s Chung-Hoon Chung captivates the audience.  Many of the images are filmed to allow the audience to look at the action from different angles which helps us to feel more depth of emotion. The length of the stairs outside and inside of the house symbolize the difficulties that Greg and Rachael both face.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film. The set design, the cast, the acting, the cinematography all make this one of the best films so far this year. Do not delay. People of all ages will enter into deep reflections of their own lives after viewing this film.

*Two Personal Comments relating to the film*

On a personal note, I as an adult, can relate to the awkwardness of having esoteric interests.  I too can relate to not fitting in with my peers. I too am a film enthusiast.  I often watch foreign classic films and classic films of various genres.  I too wish to become a filmmaker so that I could document the events going on around me.  Sometimes these arcane interests can leave one feeling alienated by others who do not understand your passion for such films. One must, however, be confident in character, and continue to pursue what makes one happy. All of the challenges of life have helped me to work through the difficulties of life so that I could see the value of a few good friends, rather than many.  We teachers and parents should help children work through the challenges of adolescence.

Also on a personal note, the film, Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl,  has special meaning to me on another level. Over the last two years, I have known a student who has been suffering with cancer in several forms.  He has battled this disease with both courage and determination to overcome its devastating effects.  He, his mom, sister, and brother have all suffered with him through multiple surgeries and through chemotherapy, through which this disease continues to hang on. As I watched the film, I could not help but reflect on how much strength and courage it takes to overcome the emotional turbulence that this disease brings.  I give kudos to him and his family for remaining steadfast and brave throughout this crisis.  Bravery does not mean the absence of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of the fear.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

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