Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has the look and feel of a movie that was made with the conscious effort to be unlike any other movie out there, and it works, and it is one of the truly great viewing experiences I have ever had.
The film has incredible range and is clever, emotionally acute, and aware of the internal and external implications of the life of an average teenager. The classic psychology associated with the experience of high school tells of believing that you are unique, while everyone else believes you are just one of a crowd. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about one kid, Greg, finding that feeling unique does not have to mean being alone, and being distant cannot always save you from being crushed like a chipmunk under a moose.
Set in Pittsburgh, the film opens with a first chapter familiar to high school movies, but quickly establishes an outlandish style. The whole world, visual and auditory, is depicted from protagonist Greg’s perspective as he relays his philosophies and random thoughts; many scenes involve flashing images of nonsense corresponding with insightful narration. Played by newcomer Thomas Mann, who is cast as the terminally awkward face of the adolescent everyman, Greg is the eponymous "Me", and through him we meet the other two title characters.
While Earl, another lead character, is not given the advantage of narration or of being in every scene the way Greg is, his thoughts and opinions are heard because he is much more expressive and outspoken than his counterpart. He's the most genuinely enjoyable of the many quirky characters in this movie, and first time actor RJ Cyler might be bound for a career of typecasting; however, he is a star waiting to be made. From the other side of the tracks yet never living too far to walk to Greg's house, Earl is described originally as a “co-worker and great guy," but predictably proves to be more. The two of them form a bond with Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, (you can guess what role she plays) who Greg similarly first describes as someone he is "acquainted with."
In the film, the camera is always moving and Greg is always talking. His narration takes on an electric aura because of its pointedness and persistence. The never- stagnant camera acts similarly, directing the eye without any room to wander and taking you elsewhere just when you have seen enough of one frame to be ready to move to the next. It is a unique film that dares to walk the delicate balance between maintaining an indie tone of naturalism and bare authenticity, and drawing endless attention to its visual style. It is loaded with tracking shots and quirky cutaways, and should be celebrated for showing the mundane -- such as a high school hallway -- in new ways.
Not lost behind the excitement of the visual creativity is a blunt story about sadness and grief. Rachel has been diagnosed with cancer, and it seems like everyone handles the news the same way. By everyone, I mean Greg and Rachel's mother (played with all of the comic charm of Molly Shannon) and others, but also the audience. As viewers, we identify with Greg's emotional response: first passive, then in denial, yet always aware that no matter how brave of a face the characters wear, the title of the film says she is dying. When Greg is told about Rachel's bad news and is sent to her house to cheer her up, they first talk with the buffer of a full staircase. When Greg finds himself troubled by her inevitable death and tries to cling to her memory and learn more about her as much as he can, he runs down the same staircase, breaking the barrier and completing the necessary journey the film sets him on, pointing to a heartbreaking emotional climax.
He begins as a social neutral, tangentially inserting himself into every clique to avoid making enemies, but ultimately keeping himself from making friends. His family is painful to watch (both of his parents are perfectly cast, however, with Connie Britton employing her stigma as trusted mother-figure and Nick Offerman employing his as the willful weirdo). They even have a cat named Cat Stevens. The film puts Greg through hell, repeatedly. Even when it might not seem like such a bad situation, he is battered. His few friends force him out of his comfort zone. His parents pound him with orders to meet their expectations. His teachers disobey his trust. His other peers pressure him into doing things he doesn't want to. All of these happen subtly, but show that life is about accumulating jabs from every direction until they finally force you to grow up.
Throughout the movie, Greg and Earl make films inspired by the classics of world cinema. Between its many homages to historic films and its own visual style, it is a movie for cinefiles as much as anything. It makes highbrow jokes by slightly diminishing the titles of these movies ("2:48 P.M. Cowboy," "Pooping Tom") and spreads them in between much more accessible humor about drugs and hot girls.
In this way, and based on its plot and characters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl enters the long tradition of teen dramas in film. Set in Pittsburgh -- the home of source novelist and screenwriter Jesse Andrews -- like Perks of Being a Wallflower and Adventureland, it takes the young adult experience as seriously yet freshly as any John Hughes classic. In fact, Greg reminded me of the hero in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, Lloyd Dobbler, who was played by John Cusack at a similar point in his career to where Mann is now. This film, along with last year's Palo Alto and 2013's The Spectacular Now represent a brilliant new wave of great teen dramas that goes deep into the catalog, and will represent this generation in the same way their forerunners represented the 1980s. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a movie people are going to be watching and showing their children for a long, long time.