At the request of his pushy mother, high school hero Greg Gaines befriends fellow student Rachel, who’s recently been diagnosed with leukaemia. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg’s experience of the awkwardness and “I have no idea what I’m doing” dilemmas of teenage years, and the pains and pleasures of investing in a meaningful friendship.
Like one of the better Woody Allen films, the story is broken into ‘parts’ and narrated by Greg throughout. Greg’s subconscious is so wild, a poster of Wolverine in Rachel’s room talks to him and questions his choice of rhetoric around her. There’s an innocent yet naturally erratic and clumsy characteristic to Greg that is one of the frankest depictions of an adolescent wallflower there’s been since Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s reluctant to call anyone a ‘friend’, and so Earl, who Greg has known since they were very young, is merely his ‘co-worker’ in making and recreating films (‘A Sockwork Orange’, Stanley Kubrick’s classic with sock puppets is a personal favourite) and he regards his inseparable friendship with Rachel as ‘doomed’ from the start because of her illness.
The film is an admirable example of creativity and originality, such as the interweaving of animation to portray Greg’s imagination and the intimate camerawork. But it’s the diversity of the characters that really anchors the likability of the film: from the hipster history teacher to all the personality types you can think of shown Mean Girls-esque in the school canteen, Greg’s hippy father to Rachel’s alcohol dependent mother, there really is something for everyone to identify with.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is as quirky and witty as it is lachrymose and slightly depressing, an understandable and well-handled balance given the subject matter being tackled. It doesn’t confront cancer by pairing it with romance like The Fault in Our Stars does, but instead highlights the weird and wonderful coping mechanisms people use to deal with the emotional turmoil the disease inflicts on the victims and those around them. This is a refreshing, contemporary comedy drama that successfully reflects the reality of teenage communication and interaction without straying into the unnecessary ‘romantic comedy’ territory that most teen films aim for.