Not Another Bad Teen Movie
By Madeleine Saaf
For a lot of teens, high school means survival. Those who can manage to escape friend-fueled drama, avoid any humiliating displays of emotion or fear, and half-ass their way through pre-calculus come out with few scratches and a diploma. Films set in high schools tend to heighten the risks -- Mean Girls drew out the jungle and tribes of the cafeteria, Easy A took the gossip wheel and turned it into an explosive, and The DUFF questioned whether tried-and-true friends are really even friends or just people looking to capitalize off the average-joe’s averageness.
Greg Gaines, the hero of the summer indie flick Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, has made it to his senior year unscathed from the war-like atmosphere of his Pittsburg high school. He has no friends yet no enemies. His secret film-production hobbie that he shares with his “colleague” Earl has remained a secret. One more year and he will be off to college where level-two of hell for the socially inept begins.
Yet his carefully crafted likeable, non-threatening, elusive persona is blown to bits by cancer. When a school acquaintance, Rachel, is diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mother forces him into a friendship with the girl, Greg’s high school survival chances diminish along with Rachel’s chances of surviving life.
While on paper Me and Earl starts to sound like the most cliche high school film ever conceived it is its life on screen that steers it away from becoming The Fault in Our Stars Pt. 2. The script written by Jesse Andrews, who also penned the novel the film is based on, leaves no room for the characters to float into the stereotypes beckoning them. Greg (Thomas Mann) veers away from former teen nobodies with his unique humor and convincing self deprecation that is both endearing and frustrating. He is self-involved, but he is a teenager and what teenager isn’t? Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is a character so subtly intricate that her intricacy goes almost unnoticed until the final scene filmed in her bedroom. Earl (RJ Cyler) spouts lines one would expect from hormonal teenage boys followed by insightful words of wisdom that Greg cannot come to on his own but which seem obvious to his jumpsuit-clad friend. The quality of the three young actors only adds to their likability and realness.
It is the cinematography and art direction that embellish the story with even more color. In one scene the camera turns to the side as a character flops down, leaving the scene to be viewed sideways as the character is seeing it. The occasional stop motion animation moments and scenes from the short films made by Greg and Earl reveal more about the characters and look quite good while doing it. The costuming and set pieces are authentic and the music spot on, almost as if a really cool, not-at-all-obnoxious teenager picked it all out.
It is the details that make this film -- the odd choice of scissors for an object for Rachel to collect, the specificity and volume of the spoof films Greg and Earl make, the fact that Rachel and her absentee dad counted squirrels on their walks when she was a child -- all of which seemed insignificant at first notice, all of which by the end caused another sniffle in the theater and tear wiped away.
Yet for all the tears and sniffles, the film never asks for it. There aren’t any scenes of Rachel screaming and getting violently sick inside her car in a gas station parking lot. They don’t travel together to Amsterdam and kiss inside the Anne Frank house to applause. There are no pre-death eulogies. After all, this isn’t The Fault in Our Stars Pt. 2. It is just the story of a boy trying to survive high school who befriends a dying girl. Thankfully the sum of all the little details make it a whole lot more than that.