Upon first impression, the shooting script of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – which has been adapted from a novel by its author, Jesse Andrews – has a very similar voice to that in most other recent young-adult fiction: a specific combination of intelligence and fear, which usually manifests in young men and women’s voices as a sort of enthusiastic shrugging, an accepted worry.
These characters are all smart, but they’re teenagers, and the triumph of one thing over the other are what modern coming-of-age tales are about: their awareness, we’re led to believe, makes them more than kids. (See the works of John Green). There’s a scene, though, only a few minutes into Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that made me realize I was watching something wonderfully, and importantly, distinct. Greg, our hero, is being lectured by his mother. He tries to respond, but she continues talking over him, intentionally not listening to what he says, until the two of them are in a sort of passive shouting match as Greg moves toward and eventually up the stairs. Progressively, the noise of their prattle is drowned out by a literal droning; as its presence grows, Greg is wrenched to the floor half-voluntarily and writhes his way toward his bedroom. He makes it. The door slams. The noise ceases.
It’s this specific, expressionistic view on its subjects that makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl the best modern film, so far, about the deep existential difficulty of adolescence. We are not convinced that these young men and women are adults because of their adult-like intelligence and their understanding of their situations. These people are teenagers; smart ones, funny ones, lovable ones, who happen to all be swirling around in that special mix of puberty-infused uncertainty. And we, too, are made to once again be young adults. That age is rendered here as a thing almost otherworldly, because it very often is, but it is a testament to the level of honesty in the film that it never feels at all fantastical. On the contrary: that image of Greg crawling into his room while being crushed by pure sensation is the most accurate representation of a fight with one’s mother in high school I have ever seen. The anxiety it brings up is both immediately recognizable and, well, anxiety-inducing, in a way that can only be felt at 17 years old. (It’s also very funny).
There are plenty of filmic non-sequiturs, primarily in the first half, which provide us with an honest and entertaining representation of one’s mind as it grows up. Visual flashes of the ideas in Greg’s head as he imagines the literal worst and best things in life are shared through rough Claymation sequences, and give us the scope and understanding of his thoughts without denying the seeming oddness and lack of cohesion they possess with the real world. Being a teenager, after all, doesn’t make sense.
But that’s not to say the story doesn’t: the plot here is quite straightforward, as is its structure. Greg is a senior in High School. So is his longtime best friend, a black boy names Earl, with whom he makes home movies, written as parodies of famous films which come off, also, like love letters. The lecture Greg’s mother gives him in that early scene is about the girl down the street, Rachel, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg is forced to hang out with her in what his mother intends to be an act of kindness.
They do, of course, become friends (and thankfully, nothing more). The chemistry between the three main actors, Greg (Thomas Mann), Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and Earl (Ronald Cyler II, stellar in his first-ever role) is consistently electric. They have that special comfort with each other that can only come when most of one’s time is spent being uncomfortable everywhere else. Living in that window of age where it feels like one is warring against the whole universe and oneself simultaneously, their relationships just sort of happen, out of necessity. Not a necessity for romantic love or even a common passion, like many modern young adult tales, but from a sort of unspoken solidarity – a real friendship.
The war with the self turns out to be center here. The odd filmic tricks and fueled-by-enthusiasm coverage of the first half slowly gives way to a much more cinematically grounded last forty minutes: 90-degree flips of the camera and dolly tracks and humorous voice overs give way to long, single-shot takes of two-person scenes as the drama is put in the forefront. These scenes are much less colorful, but in a way that portrays equally as well what it feels like to be young and lost: in a few moments, without anything other than a few words or a long silence, everything changes – you become hyper aware of every nervous tick, every stifled breath. Our perspective can’t shift, even as everything is happening all at once. In the throes of adolescence, we are trapped in ourselves.
I won’t say what happens, because the film doesn’t want you to be sure: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a story where the threat of death is felt both in the hospital room and in the school cafeteria. But it differs from the contemporary coming-of-age tale in that it isn’t just about coming to terms with death, with loss, in order to grow up. It tells us that growing up actually has nothing to do with being accepted enough, or intelligent enough, or strong enough, or achieving enough. Really, finally emerging from adolescence means understanding that our lives aren’t just about us. And it is for that reason we must go on living.
The film opens on June 12.