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“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl:” A Better Film About Teenage Cancer to Enjoy

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I wouldn’t peg myself as a person who particularly enjoys going to see movies about high school kids with cancer. Despite this, I have seen and for the most part thoroughly enjoyed, films such as A Walk to Remember, Now is Good, and The Fault in Our Stars. Even blockbuster hits like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants includes a young, cute blonde girl dying from cancer as a dramatic plot twist. It wasn’t until I saw the latest “teen cancer drama,” Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, that I realized — Americans love tragic stories about underage kids dying from leukemia. This is weird, right? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl succeeds in identifying this weirdness, but in very unexpected ways.

Olivia Cooke as "Rachel" and Thomas Mann as "Earl" in ME AND THE DYING GIRL. Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Olivia Cooke as “Rachel” and Thomas Mann as “Earl” in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The Landmark Theatre in Lakeview was almost completely empty on a sunny, Tuesday afternoon. I took my seat behind a cute couple, the only other people in the entire theater, and prepared myself for what was sure to be a two-hour, depressing tear-fest. I assumed this movie would be like A Walk to Remember or The Fault in Our Stars. These are books made into movies that leave everyone teary eyed in the theater as the credits roll. I took out my chocolate, accepted my fate, and settled in. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, I realized that I was in for something completely different from what I had expected, and it was going to be anything but depressing.

The movie begins with the main character Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann — no relation to the German novelist) struggling to begin a story. He settles for: “This is the story of my senior year and how I made a film so bad it literally killed someone.” This line perfectly captures the feeling of the entire film. Yes, in this story someone dies, but that is not the focus of the story or the main plotline. Instead, the film focuses on Greg, who is not dying of cancer, but is rather a pretty normal, albeit self-conscious teenager who always says, “The dumbest shit.” (His words, not mine.) This first line also hints at the fact that it is not important to take this film seriously, because Greg sure doesn’t. He doesn’t take anything seriously.

Greg is an interesting guy. He’s cruised through high school, liked by everyone, but not close enough to call anyone his friend. The closest person to him, his “colleague” Earl, is a young black teenager from the bad side of town. While Earl’s character begins the first half of the film only saying things like, “Play with them titties!” in reference to girls at the school that Greg happens to be interested in, his character grows to become the only one in the film who can be logical and straightforward with Greg.

After Greg’s mom, Connie Britton (from Nashville and Friday Night Lights), forces him to “do something good” and become friends with the recently diagnosed Rachel, Greg finds himself actually bonding with someone in a way he has never experienced. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story, Glee) refreshingly focuses on friendship rather than puppy love and by the end of the film many questions are unanswered as to what could have been between the two.  This story, unlike The Fault in Our Stars, reminds us that life is, for the most part, not like the movies and two people don’t always fall in love because one happens to be dying of cancer.

The movie is good in a way that other teen-cancer flicks aren’t because it manages to be simultaneously poignant and silly. It is packed full of witty conversation, jokes, and clever, but sometimes over the top, references to cinematic classics.  The film would be worth watching simply for the hysterical shorts that Greg and Earl make with titles like “Death in Tennis,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” “Eyes Wide Butt,” and “Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind.”

Fans of Parks and Recreation will enjoy Nick Offerman’s role as Greg’s offbeat, hippie, sociologist professor dad.  Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon is superb as Rachel’s slightly depressed, slightly intoxicated, but entirely lovable mom. The real stars of the film are Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, and Olivia Cooke who play Greg, Earl, and Rachel. These three young actors fit perfectly into the spirit of their roles and their connection ultimately feels real.

Though the film is peppered with bizarre scenes and it sometimes feels as if too much is going on, there is something here for everyone. Unlike The Fault in Our Stars or A Walk to Remember, which both use pretty straightforward, theatrical story telling, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that only gets better after watching it multiple times because of it’s  fast, clever dialogue and over-the-top references. As far as “teenage cancer dramas” go, this one is the best I have seen so far. This could be because I left the theater both emotionally touched and laughing, or because I can’t wait to see it again.



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