Films On HBO: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) feels like the mildly cynical indie alternative to the already indie-feeling The Fault in Our Stars (2014), a film which, if you remember I loved, and I loved quite a bitFault came out in June 2014 and Earl only a few months later in January of 2015. It’s one of those odd phenomenon that happen where a year in cinema focuses in on one theme or trope. At some point, everybody was talking about The Dark Knight (2008) tier super-surveillance or 2014’s obsession with Magic Blood. By far the most salient comparison of oddly similar titles releasing so close is 2011’s Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached, in which both Ashton Kutcher and his IRL wife each take a movie and attempt to demonstrate how casual hook ups mess things up.

So on the surface, a movie about a teenage girl with cancer connecting with a young man seems awfully similar to a movie about a teenage girl with cancer connecting with a young man, but the nuances of the thing are vastly different.

Greg (Thomas Mann) is our emotionally stunted emo creative archetypal lead who sort of despises his genuinely kind yet overbearing mother (Connie Britton) and his uber peculiar father (Nick Offerman). He feels socially isolated at school and skates by being as neutral and inoffensive as possible in his day-to-day; but as such, he has virtually zero close friends. His one constant companion is Earl (RJ Cyler), a “friend” that he consistently refers to as his “coworker” with whom he makes (or rather re-makes) a number of Great films (i.e., Sockwork Orange instead of Clockwork Orange. He has no interest in college and zero ambition to speak of, mainly because he finds the idea of new social hurdles horrifying.

After a classmate is diagnosed with cancer, his aforementioned overbearing mother demands that he spend time with her. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has little to no interest in his or his mother’s pity…yet…somehow they wind up becoming friends, clinging to each other for far longer than the 105-minute runtime (perhaps only because I watched the complete movie in two separate sittings). They have a weird and quirky friend-mance that never evolves to anything more even though they both seem to wish it might; it’s a shame that Rachel lakes the emotional room and Greg lacks the emotional depth to let it happen. Instead, both they and we settle for a relationship that centers on her clinging to Greg and Earl’s movie’s as a form of escapism from the nightmare of her life and for Greg it’s him getting his feet wet in what intimacy looks like and learning how to actually be a more than adequate human being.

There’s an irritating moment early on where Greg shows her a bunk-ass method for diffusing an awkward situation, which is to just do something weird with your body and make a weird noise, which, you know, is stolen right out of Garden State.

The supporting cast of includes Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother, who winds up being an earnest but vaguely off-putting bit of a drunk (but hey, maybe that part is just because her daughter has cancer). The last noteworthy person is Katherine Hughes as Madison, the all-too predictable pretty girl do-gooder that Greg is both terrified by and enamored with. There’s also Jon Bernthal as a wizened, inked-out teacher that lets Greg and Earl watch movies during lunch in his office rather than force them to suffer the horrors of the cafeteria. He is arguably the most important in the supporting lineup, if only because the “point” of the movie comes directly from his mouth at some point.

You see, Greg provides narration throughout the entire story, and he reassures us at the beginning that even if we think this is a love story where the girl dies at the end, we are totally wrong. There’s no love. She survives. The first one is sort of a lie, but the second? It’s an outright lie. Madison (the hot do-gooder) convinces Greg that especially since Rach is so obsessed with their movies, that they should make one for her to, you know, make her feel better. It’s all rather contrived and cliched, but utterly believable. The thing is, Greg is — and I cannot say this enough — so emotionally stunted that he can’t seem to overcome the creative block that won’t let him express himself. By the time he does, it’s prom night and Rachel is literally laying on her deathbed.

Sometime around then, Bernthal’s Mr. McCarthy tells Greg an anecdote about how after his father died, he heard a story about how while overseas in the military, he would serenade women in the bars. A tough man of few words, singing. The point, he says (which he has to say because the petulant and angry Greg says something like “Why the hell did you tell me that lame-ass story anyway!?”), is that even after people die, they live on through you loving and learning about them. It’s sort of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯-ish moment, because it’s just a slight rewording of the same “they’ll live on in our memory of them” kind of thing. There’s nothing really novel going on.

Greg’s emotional journey ultimately feels kind of unfulfilled. He manages to get into and, we’re assuming, go to college — which becomes something of a driving conflict in act three for some lame reason. Earl isn’t even really a character so much as a wise angel of few words lounging about as the no-nonsense token black guy that, when it comes down to it, can handle his own in a fight.

All in all, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a heartfelt story that feels a bit cheap and juvenile, but might be worth watching if you’re into this sappy kind of stuff like I am. As best I can tell, it’s still streaming via HBO, so give it a go if you like sad teenage stuff.