Heartbreak 101 | "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" Movie Review

Author Jesse Andrews judiciously prunes and adds some quirk to the smirk in his screen adaptation of his 2012 debut novel. The result is an amicable, lively enhancement of his book, which in numerous ways it surpasses.
RJ Cyler as Earl, left, and Thomas Mann as Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

RJ Cyler as Earl (l.) and Thomas Mann as Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Author Jesse Andrews judiciously prunes and adds some quirk to the smirk in his screen adaptation of his debut novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Abrams, 2012). The result is an amicable, lively enhancement of his book, which in numerous ways it surpasses. Like the novel, the cocky coming-of-age tale is told through the gregarious first-person voice of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), 17, who drifts through his Pittsburgh high school not really part of any clique. What’s more important to him is ensuring that he has no enemies; he’d rather be invisible. His one goal: not to be ostracized by anyone. The only student he hangs out with (at the history’s teacher’s office, not in the “disputed no-go zone” of the cafeteria) is the terse and equally aloof Earl (RJ Cyler), whom Greg refers to only as his coworker. The two have a secret: they make short movies, quasi remakes of the art-house oeuvre. Some younger viewers may be unfamiliar with the movies being spoofed, but those in the know will guffaw and nod in recognition of "Rosemary Baby Carrots," "The Rad Shoes," and "A Sockwork Orange." "Death in Tennis," anyone? A compilation of these short films would make a great DVD extra. The film retains the bluntness of the book’s chapter headings, and in the segment “The Day Where I Meet a Dying Girl,” Greg finds out that Rachel, a neighbor and fellow senior, has leukemia. (She’s part of what he calls the “boring Jewish girls group.”) He barely knows her, but after much pressure from his mother (the ever maternal Connie Britton), he calls Rachel and invites himself over. He admits that his mom made him call her, and Rachel makes it clear that she’s sick, not dying, and doesn't need his pity. In some ways she’s the ideal audience for Greg: she lets him do all the talking and finds him humorously charming. Yet his self-awareness only takes him so far: he winds up in her bedroom almost every day but professes to the audience that he goes more for the popular and “insanely hot” Madison (Katherine Hughes, the millennials’ Phoebe Cates?). Andrews retains much of Greg’s cooler-than-thou, detached, and precocious worldview, and fortunately not his relentless, self-lacerating posturing (“If after reading this book you come to my house and brutally murder me, I truly do not blame you” or “The last paragraph is so stupid that I couldn’t even bring myself to delete it”), and he shortens the teen’s exhausting riffs (gone: the monologue on the pleasures of eating alien barf) and a digressive episode where Greg and Earl accidentally get high. All of Greg’s observations still revolve around himself, but the onscreen presence of others dilutes his narrow vision. He’s now much more likable, though hardly sanitized. The tone is less snarky, too (from the book: “Israel. Where Virginity Goes to Die”) and still pungent. Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Photo by Anne Marie Fox/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Olivia Cooke, who plays a young woman with cystic fibrosis on TV’s Bates Motel, has a lock on beautiful, ailing heroine parts, and she enriches the sometimes cryptic role of Rachel. Directing with a light and detailed touch, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures what often times is overlooked or taken for granted in many relationship-based stories: the moment when one character falls in love with another: Rachel glows as the gawky, shaggy-haired Greg fumbles about trying to make her laugh. Gomez-Rejon modulates the rhythm of the editing and camera movement, and in doing so lavishes the two actors with static medium two-shots; the world really becomes all about them. In a climactic scene, Rachel doesn’t utter one word. She doesn’t have to. Expressive close-ups were made for performances like this. And in a brief, subtle moment, Greg checks to see that she’s still breathing while she’s sound asleep, bringing to mind a similar moment in another tearjerker, Terms of Endearment. Perhaps witnessing someone young struggle with a deadly disease onscreen has a different impact than reading about it. Additionally, Rachel steps into the foreground more so than in the book. As a result, the movie has an emotional impact that the muted, at times glib prose lacks. However, after viewers have reached for the Kleenex (you’d have to have tear ducts made of steel not to), they may begin talking back to the screen. The film is ultimately so good-humored that audiences may not realize that Rachel’s role serves as a plot device for the redemption of, and an eye-opening Life Lesson for, the callow lead character. In contrast, the two teen cancer patients-in-love in both the film and book of The Fault in Our Stars have more equal weight in the narrative; they inform each other, and the overall focus is more evenly distributed. Even so, this film handles the trope of the sacrificial friend gently and economically, going more for laughs rather than sentimentality. In some ways, it’s the smoochless, button-down Fault. With its snappy pace and sly sense of humor, this is one of the smartest YA adaptations in recent years and should appeal to a wider audience, in addition to cinephiles and the book’s fans. (The Spectacular Now is its nearest competitor.) Expect it to spur interest in the novel.   Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon 105 min. Rated PG-13 (a few S-bombs and such)

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