Herzog’s Happy Homily: The Death-Defying Cinematic Stunt of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

  • “Nature here is vile and base … there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they – they sing. They just screech in pain.” – German film director Werner Herzog, interviewed in Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo

The first thing you need to know about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that, as the title indicates, there is a young woman who is dying at the center of the story. The second thing you need to know about the film is that it is highly original, very funny and extremely cinematic. Yes, this is a movie comedy (and a damn good one) about cancer. As with the best examples of the (comedy) genre, the film uses humor to remind us why life is worth living in the first place. Art doesn’t imitate life here: it nurtures and revitalizes it. Without our ability to express ourselves creatively, who are we?

Based on the book of the same title, the movie adaptation of Me and Earl was actually written by the original author, Jesse Andrews. The basic story structure of book and movie are the same, but there are significant differences in the tone and details of the film that make it an even richer approach to its difficult material. As such, for this reader/viewer, the adaptation is superior to its source. Since Andrews penned both, I hope he will forgive me.

At the start of our tale (set in Pittsburgh) we meet Greg Gaines, a severely depressed (though he doesn’t realize it) high-school senior who has spent the better part of his life up to now avoiding meaningful human connection, with one notable exception. He has one friend (the exception), named Earl Jackson, though he calls him a “co-worker,” because the two of them have grown up making movies together. Greg is white and middle-class, the child of academics, while Earl is black and poor, the child of absent parents, yet the two of them, early on, formed a fast bond over their love of cinema (they have an especial fondness for Werner Herzog). This passion has manifested itself in an unusual way. They remake their favorite films – parodic title included – using whatever materials they have at hand, the results of which includeAnatomy of a BurgerRosemary Baby CarrotsAte 1/2 (of my lunch), and The 400 Bros. As silly as this enterprise may sound, one of the great joys of the film is seeing clips from the Gaines/Jackson studio, even though Greg, in voiceover, denigrates the work as dumb and derivative. It is clear that these two social outcasts, “screeching in pain,” are both highly intuitive and sensitive young souls.

Enter Rachel Kushner, a fellow senior and vague acquaintance, just diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mother more or less orders her son to go cheer Rachel up. Unwilling – but more unwilling to disobey mom – Greg finally makes the visit, only to be rebuffed by Rachel, who can tell he’s being forced, and wants no one’s sympathy. Nerdy goofball that he is, however, Greg manages to charm his way past Rachel’s defenses and is soon spending a lot more time with her than he thought he would want to. He may think she needs a friend (and she does), but what’s even clearer is how much he needs her. Earl joins in, and before too long Rachel is watching their formidable movie output. The only problem is that Greg has long maintained the utmost secrecy about the films, wanting no one to watch them, and so when Earl gives Rachel a stack of DVDs, Greg is resentful and uncomfortable. Still, since Rachel seems to enjoy them – a lot – and since she’s dying, what can he do? And so all is (more or less) good until Rachel’s friend Madison – who has, much to Greg’s mortification, also learned of the films – asks Greg to make a movie for Rachel. That’s a lot different than parodying someone else’s work, and it’s Greg’s journey to find his own voice that drives the plot of the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl swept the major awards at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, and no wonder. Last year at this time we saw The Fault in Our Stars, another film about cancer-stricken teens, and while that film was sweet and lovely in many ways, handling its sad subject with decent sensitivity and without excessive sentimentality, there is something about Me and Earl‘s wildly inventive take on the subject that makes us feel the sadness of the situation even more. Because Greg is such a constantly ironic commentator on his own life and that of his friends, when he is finally forced to confront the realities of life and death – losing his sardonic distanciation coping mechanisms in the process – his loss is our loss and the cathartic release is one of the most powerful emotions I have felt on screen in a long time. Perhaps because we have laughed so hard, earlier, our tears flow that much more freely at the end.

Until then, though (and even while you’re crying), the film is a delightful ride. Where else can you see such a wide variety of movie spoofs, along with very funny stop-motion animation interludes (every time Greg talks to a pretty girl in school, we cut to an image of a moose – the girl – stomping on a chipmunk – Greg)? All of it is complemented by Gomez-Rejon’s direction of the brilliant ensemble cast, which includes: Thomas Mann (Project X) as Greg, RJ Cyler (Second Chances) as Earl, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel“) as Rachel, Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) as Greg’s mom, Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation“) as Greg’s dad, Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog) as Rachel’s mom, and Katherine C. Hughes (Men, Women & Children) as Madison, the “moose” to Greg’s chipmunk. This is a very moving, very complex film, which provides a needed antidote to a lot of the mindless (if fun) summer fare currently playing at the multiplexes. It’s art as it should be: thoughtful, thought-provoking, gripping and emotionally overwhelming. It’s also endlessly entertaining. Go see it now.

[NOTE: This review corrected on July 28 to change “mouse” to “chipmunk” in my description of the stop-motion animation. Thanks to Paula Gallagher for catching my mistake.] 

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