The secret to a great coming-of-age film, if I may purport to be an expert for a moment, is a youthful protagonist that learns one or two of life's hardest lessons and resolves to carry on. Life's challenges will only get more complex the more experience he or she accumulates, but small, satisfying rewards await as well. This is the realization that sets you on the path to adulthood.
These kind of stories are a cottage industry for independent film studios. We get several of them every year -- their quality varying greatly. The worst (looking at you The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now) aren't so much coming-of-age films as they are an exorcising of daddy/mommy issues. But the best, no matter how rapidly my teenage years are receding, have a way of transporting me back to those bittersweet days -- alienation and possibility undulating through every moment.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just such a film. The basic story is right there in the title. Greg Gaines (Me) is a purposefully anonymous high school senior. He is friendly with everyone at his school, but friends with almost no one -- Switzerland or Liechtenstein or Andorra amid a sea of nation-state cliques. He is so afraid of being vulnerable that he refers to his one actual friend, Earl, as his "co-worker." It's a humorous designation because he and Earl spend so much of their time making "terrible" adaptations of classic films. They have made scores of them, always tweaking the title subtly and the plot in accordance (think The Seven Seals instead of The Seventh Seal or A Sockwork Orange instead of A Clockwork Orange).
The Dying Girl, naturally, shakes Greg from his risk-and-reward free existence. Rachel, a classmate, is diagnosed with stage IV leukemia and Greg is forced to spend time with her by his mother, played by the great Connie Britton. His compulsory compassion gives way to a real bond — one formed over bawdy jokes about throw pillows and the scores of A Sockwork Oranges in Greg and Earl’s filmography. Rachel gets a bit of respite from the ravages of chemotherapy. Greg, try as he might to keep his emotional distance, suddenly finds it hard to be Switzerland.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not about tragic young love. It is not a moral tale or really even about life and death. It’s about Greg realizing that fear can not be fully controlled and that a well-lived life is one that contains many, many selfless moments.
Greg’s selfishness and self-loathing comes through in his words and his actions — the objectively appalling things he says to his friend as her illness progresses, his inertia as he tries to make a film just for Rachel. But the visuals and voiceovers inserted by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon are even more powerful. The film is frontloaded with sarcastic, amusing rants from Greg, and even in frames where he is very clearly in the background, the lens often brings him in to focus.
This is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand from Gomez-Rejon. Much like Greg himself, we are absorbed in how everything is affecting him and, so, missing a whole world around him. It’s there all along, but almost impossible to see until revealed all at once.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl packs a ton in, including a recurring gag with a claymation moose and a string of memorable cameos from the “adult” actors (Britton, Nick Offerman as Greg’s dad, Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, Jon Bernthal as Greg and Earl’s history teacher), but Gomez-Rejon never loses focus on Greg and his two truest friends. Star-making turns from Thomas Mann (Greg), RJ Cyler (Earl) and Olivia Cooke (Rachel) tie it all together. This is a magical film — funny, surprising, devastating — a new classic in a genre that has plenty to speak of already.