Like its main character, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a big heart hidden under a surface of affectations. When the film, yet another fussily stylized coming-of-age Sundance winner, began, I was worried it was primed to get on my nerves. It charges out of the gate with self-consciously flippant narration wrapped around a teenage boy’s college application letter. Thomas Mann is the boy, Greg, the “Me” of the title. He opens the film delivering verbose voice over in a mopey monologue breaking down the social groups of his quirky high school over a montage of precisely framed tableaus. This set off all the twee faux-indie navel gazing alarm bells in my head. But then a funny thing happened. The movie settled into its rhythms, allowing its characters space to breathe and its style room to reflect an evocative teenage mood. By the end, it had worn down my defenses and moved me.
In the opening, Greg explains his plan to stay invisible during high school, friendly enough to avoid getting picked on, but distant enough to avoid close associations with any one group. He acts like he’s uninterested in making meaningful human connections, but really he’s just scared of getting hurt. Better to have no real friends than risk losing them. Instead, Greg spends his time enjoying culture, his sociology professor father (Nick Offerman) and mother (Connie Britton) having encouraged his serious-minded eclectic exploration of everything from food to literature. But film is his favorite, marching through the Criterion Collection canon and making his own little parodies (with titles like My Dinner with Andre the Giant) in his spare time. It’s not long before this movie’s arch stylization is put to good use reflecting Greg’s worldview. It knows it’s a movie as much as he wishes his life could be understood that way.
His closest acquaintance is a fellow cinephile, Earl (RJ Cyler), who likes the same movies and collaborates on the parodies. They hang out every day and have fun together, but they’re not friends, exactly. Greg calls him his co-worker, but we, and Earl, know better. Over the course of the film, Greg slowly lets down his emotional barriers as he allows himself to step out of the constricting comfort zone he’s built. The first step is a shove. A classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mother forces him to go over to her house. Despite neither teen feeling especially thrilled about this diagnosis-inspired play date, an embarrassed friendship forms, dropping the embarrassment as they begin to feel comfortable around each other. But Greg remains painfully socially awkward, as the movie thankfully doesn’t become glossy teen romance. It remains realistic about how much we could expect a person so stubborn could change in a relatively short period of time.
Because Rachel’s the “Dying Girl,” we have a good idea about where this is going. But she’s not completely reduced to her condition or used exclusively as a prop for other’s emotional growth. Though she is that, too. Greg and his outlook remains the focus, the characters turning around him vaguely defined, outside his immediate interest. But as he gets to know them, they come into focus, relationships developing in a sweetly fumbling way. The supporting ensemble capably fleshes out what could otherwise be stock eccentric types. Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, based on his novel of the same name, has familiar teen comedy elements (wacky mom (Molly Shannon), wise cool teacher (Jon Bernthal), hellish cafeteria, set cliques, accidental drug use). It’s self-aware and loaded with artifice (split-screens, title cards, winking narration, precisely dropped soundtrack cues), but also totally sincere in its evocation of a pinched emotional perspective. Greg feels things so deeply he holds himself back, preferring movies to the real world because it’s a channeling of emotion. (How many film fans can relate?) Human connection isn’t so easily contained.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has mostly directed TV episodes for Ryan Murphy’s Glee and American Horror Story, is no stranger to letting loose with all manner of wild emotions and attention-grabbing style. Here he deploys an extravagantly directed showiness with long unbroken takes, tight framing to emphasize strong feeling, dramatic focus pulls, cutaways to animations and flashbacks, blocking to enhance emotional distance by pushing characters to the extreme sides of a wide scope frame. But it’s in service of a delicate tone, matching the wild imagination and moody inner life of its main character. As he grows closer to the Dying Girl, and realizes how important his friendship with Earl really is, the film draws them closer in the frame. Soon he’s no longer sharing the shot, but sharing the space. The dramatic style settles down, decreasing its posturing as Greg does.
Its climactic moment – you can probably guess the broad strokes – is its most beautiful, a scene of pure earnest connection mediated, but not superseded, by cinema. The camera focuses on Cooke’s eyes, wet and trembling, the light from a projector dancing colors across her face as their connection reaches its purest expression. But this moment doesn’t solve Greg’s problems, spiking a potentially sentimental moment with a more realistic picture of the emotions and situations involved. Greg gains confidence in risking connection despite possible pain. There’s enough reflection in this end to prevent the film from becoming only blinkered approval of his initial attitudes. So even though the other characters only exist here to put the protagonist on the path out of adolescent selfishness, they remain individuals. He learns to see other people as continually unfolding surprises, with more to learn the more you stick around and get to know them. Films can be like that, too. Sometimes if you take a chance, let your guard down, you can be rewarded with meaningful, maybe painful, connection.