There’s a lot to appreciate about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, particularly in how much it is willing to reject certain tropes of teen-targeted films in order to make a product that defies genre conventions. First and foremost, this is not a love story, which alone makes it noteworthy amongst films targeted at this demographic. It is also wickedly funny with a sense of humor that is instantly relatable to the teenage mindset, yet couched in literary and cinematic language that makes it interesting for adults. That said, though, Me and Earl would have been a much better film if it hadn’t spent so much energy congratulating itself on how it’s different and focused on how it could tell a more original story.
The titular characters are Greg (“Me”), Earl (self-explanatory), and Rachel (the Dying Girl). Greg is an aspiring film-maker who partners up with local kid Earl to make off-beat parodies of classic and quirky films. One day, Greg’s mom informs him that Rachel, a girl in Greg’s class, has been diagnosed with leukemia, so it is Greg’s duty to go and spend time with the dying girl who he barely knows. Begrudging at first, Greg makes his way over to Rachel’s house and the two eventually spark up a friendship, bringing Earl in as Rachel becomes a fan of their bizarre films.
The premise itself may sound a bit standard for the cancer-as-tragedy style of tear-jerker that is a staple of teen fiction, but this film surprisingly doesn’t exploit the cancer for its own sake, even going so far as to mock those who can only see a person for the disease they carry. This is actually a coming-of-age story for Greg, whose self-loathing angst is transformed by his willingness to bring a new friend into his life, a status that he only barely awards to Earl even after years of making films together. It’s an interesting spin on a stale trope that is accentuated by some really smart and funny writing, with Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, and Jon Bernthal killing it in some bizarre supporting adult roles.
However, the film is perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory in how aesthetically and narratively different it is. The camerawork and score make constant reference to classic films, and while the references will only be distracting to those versed enough in film history to get the joke, they don’t serve any purpose other than to make the film appear more artistically deep than it actually is. Furthermore, this comes at the expense of real human interactions, as Greg’s story completely overshadows the other two titular characters. Earl and Rachel each have one defining character trait (being a black cliché and dying, respectively), which especially feels disingenuous when the film places such emphasis on treating Rachel as more than a cancer incubator.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t a bad film, but it certainly isn’t as great as it thinks it is. It’s a film with a lot of style and a lot of self-awareness of the pitfalls that teen tragedies fall into, but not only does its self-awareness become obnoxiously egotistical, but it ultimately feels hollow once you acknowledge the tropes that it doesn’t avoid, namely its shallow characters and too-cool sense of style. I recommend this film for a few quirky and bizarre laughs, but don’t buy into its self-hype during its final moments. This is not the teen fiction second coming that some have lauded it as.