This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It is being reposted for the film’s theatrical release.
I watch a lot of movies – a whole lot. They’re a big part of my life, helping me and many others like me live this vicarious, often romanticized existence where the guy gets the girl, or doesn’t, or the girl shoots him in the face, or whatever. Over time, after many, many hours frittered away in front of various screens, any seasoned movie-watcher starts to formulate their own rules for what they consider to be truly great cinema. I have a few of these rules bouncing round my head every time I sit down at a picture show, but there’s one that sticks with me more than all the others: A film will go a long, long way, provided it has a good heart.
Call me sappy, call me deluded, but it’s my rule and I’m going to stick by it. A truly good-hearted film transcends its flaws – for recent reference try Silver Linings Playbook, for a more classic approach, try pretty much Frank Capra’s whole back catalog. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is a wonderful movie, with its beautiful, soulfully beating heart enveloped in a film fully deserving of the masses of praise it looks set to receive. This is why I come to Sundance. This is why I watch movies.
Teenagerhood is kind of crumby, but also kind of great. We’ve heard it from countless coming of age stories, and will doubtless hear it repeated again and again ad nauseum for the rest of recorded time. Me & Earl‘s story certainly doesn’t revolutionize proceedings on that front – we’re introduced to awkward teen Greg (Thomas Mann), who spends most of his spare time making hilariously titled knock-offs of classic pieces of cinema with the titular Earl (RJ Cyler) and playing the typically anonymous kid at a typically clique-y high school. The equally titular dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), recently diagnosed with leukaemia, but still brimming with the kind of verve and wit that Greg – a snarky, cine-literate ball of semi-ironic self loathing – comes to begrudgingly befriend.
It sounds like pretty standard stuff, and on a plotting level Me & Earl certainly doesn’t go breaking any molds, but it’s in the little details where it truly thrives. The houses feel lived in, the characters feel broken-in and the camera-work is, to be frank, absolutely stunning. Casually invoking – without over-emphasizing – the sharp, wheeling turns and pastel colors of Wes Anderson at his best, this film’s a looker as well as a heartbreaker. A particular shot in the opening ten minutes – one involving a cafeteria sequence featuring what must be well over a hundred extras – is by quite a way the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen this year.
But forget the visuals, forget the technicalities, forget the brilliant touches of comedy and myriad Werner Herzog references, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl‘s true importance lies in its raw, unshakable humanity. In the wrong hands Greg would be an unlikable nightmare, Rachel would be an annoying Manic Pixie Dream cipher and Earl would be the typically tertiary Hollywood black guy. But they’re not, they’re people – beautiful, beautiful people.
It’s hard to express in words the wounded, combined cry of teenage regret and joy that spills out of this film’s every frame, but it’s one that has a near total universality. We were all that kid once – feeling kind of alone, kind of misunderstood, kind of in love and distinctly unsure of what to do or where to go or who to be. There have been many films like this in the past, but nothing captures it quite as perfectly, quite as honestly, quite as beautifully, as this.
As a particularly good episode of Mad Men taught me a few years ago, the term “nostalgia,” when literally translated, means “the pain from an old wound.” In a packed press screening filled with requisitely snooty film critics from all walks of life, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl reopened wounds for just about everyone. It’s a film all but tailor made for guys like me – man-children who beat themselves up over the littlest things and listened to way too much Youth Lagoon for their own good – and I love it to pieces, but this is a film that’ll hold meaning for anyone. This is filmmaking at its most honest and glorious, at its most sarcastic yet sincere, at its most personal yet universal, and it deserves all the money and plaudits the cinematic world has to offer.
Maybe I’m just sappy, maybe I’m just deluded, or maybe – just for 100 odd minutes of cinematic bliss – I, along with the rest of my cinema patrons, was taken back to a place where I’ll never want to go, but will always want to be.
For the over-sensitive kid in all of us, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is something truly earnest, truly heartfelt and truly beautiful.