Arriving on the coat tails of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, you might expect Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to be yet another fresh-off-the-production-line young adult adaptation: repackaged and given a jazzy new name, but fundamentally made of the same old stuff.
And that’s why you should never judge a book by its cover – or, indeed, a movie by its trailer. In director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s hands, Jesse Andrews’ eponymous novel becomes a funny and moving coming-of-age story that’s uncommonly insightful about the importance of teenage friendship.
The plot centres on Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an awkward, self-loathing high-schooler who is seemingly happy to drift through life by being as invisible as possible and making only broad acquaintance with his school’s various cliques. The closest he has to a friend is his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes charming film parodies with puntastic titles like A Sockwork Orange and Apocalypse Wow.
After being guilt-tripped by his overbearing, oddball parents, Greg pays a visit to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a former childhood friend who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Despite neither of them initially wanting the other’s company, they gradually form an unexpected friendship, convincing Greg to make a film dedicated to her honour.
Refreshingly, Greg and Rachel’s relationship remains purely platonic throughout; in fact, the film delights in frequently skewering the trope just to make its point. Rather than Greg falling for his MPDG, he and Rachel form an honest friendship that is extraordinary for simply being so ordinary. Cultivated over time and based on a shared awkwardness and a random sense of humour, theirs feels like a real, warts-and-all friendship to which everyone can relate – something that is a surprising rarity on film.
Though Olivia Cooke pitches her performance perfectly as Rachel, bringing a subtle, touching dignity to the role when others would be tempted to over-emote, the film hinges on Thomas Mann’s endearing turn as Greg. Despite sharing the title with two other characters, the story is all about our aloof narrator, whose growth from defensive, deliberately self-deprecating goof into an open human being comfortable in his own Gopher-looking skin feels natural and sincere thanks to Mann’s beaming charm.
Even as Rachel’s health deteriorates and the tone becomes more serious, Rejon never lets his film veer into schmaltz. A former assistant to Martin Scorsese, Rejon understandably makes use of sweeping cameras and extended tracking shots, but his visual style actually owes more to Wes Anderson.
From the pointed chapter titles to the storybook style of the set design, Me and Earl… has an Anderson-esque air of suburban quirkiness, creating a witty and breezy tone that prevents the story from becoming overly mawkish; yet Rejon also knows when to dial back the visual quirks, delivering a tearful ending that feels sad, sweet and utterly profound.
Though its release might feel like another case of a studio jumping on a genre bandwagon, Me and Earl… is a young adult adaptation of surprising and endearing depth. Beautifully cast, charming in its wit and style, and insightfully honest about the importance of friendship when growing up, Me and Earl… is an unexpected pleasure.
Runtime: 105 min; Genre: Comedy/Drama; Released: 4 September 2015;
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; Screenwriter: Jesse Andrews;
Stars: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman
Click here to watch the trailer for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl