Review by Mark Schwab
Nearly at the halfway mark through 2015, I've found it - the best film of the year. If I view another movie in 2015 that is more satisfying than Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, then we will all be the better for it. This is one of those films that reminds you of why movies are made and why sitting in a large dark room sharing the same experience with a bunch of strangers can be magical and moving.
A darling of the 2015 Sundance film festival, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl seems to be totally conventional if I lay out the plot pieces on the cinematic coffee table; oddball high school kid has trouble negotiating a clique-filled high school, can't seem to understand girls, has strange parents and generally feels he's smarter than everyone in his dumb-hick town because he watches foreign movies. However, this movie takes every cliche and flips it into the most relevant examination about today's youth since John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (which is high praise from me indeed).
The oddball at the center (and who narrates for us) is Greg Gains (a wonderful Thomas Mann), a young man who has created an insular world around himself which supports his general self-loathing. At school he pursues "casual acquaintences" with all of the usual cliques so he never has to be really involved emotionally with any of them. Greg has learned (along with a lot of the current under-30 generation) that it has become very easy to hide in plain sight, allowing one to keep everything and everyone at exactly the distance one feels comfortable with. Even the one person his age that he hangs with, Earl (a sly RJ Cyler), is not his best friend but a "co-worker". Together the two of them make weird knock offs of classic movies (i.e. "A Sockwork Orange", "Raging Bull(shit)") on zero budgets that he makes sure no one else sees. What is amazing is that we instantly like Greg Gaines. What sneaks up on you is that Greg really isn't that odd in today's youth culture - especially beneath the superficial details.
The real gear turn here is when one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke - also perfect) is diagnosed with leukemia. Greg's mother forces, yes forces (Greg's word), him to go over to Rachel's house and make a (gasp!) face to face connection with her. Right away, Greg is nervous about this (as would most of today's youth, I think). It's fascinating how just the idea of being present...physically present.....with someone in the same room who is going through something incredibly difficult, has now become something to fear. I think Greg would much prefer to send a hologram of himself to Rachel's place.
But once Greg actually meets Rachel in her home, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon starts taking the story in some truly unexpected directions and it would be almost criminal to reveal them. But I will say this does not devolve into a disease of the week movie or a meet-cute tween romance. The film is much too smart for that. In broader terms, the film can be hysterically funny, incredibly perceptive, deeply moving and many times it is all of these things at once.
This movie really got to me in all the right ways. I lost myself in it. It's the type of film where the theatre walls dissolve and you find yourself living their experience in almost virtual reality terms. It was as if I (as someone in their mid-40's) finally started to understand the way today's youth see the world and themselves in our disconnected/incredibly connected paradox of social media and meta-awareness.
And where this movie really hits its mark is the way it shows that depsite all of the distractions vying for today's humans, when you can take them away from it all - even for a small amount of time - and get them to actually verbally communicate, there is still genuine humanity to be found. Yes, dear readers, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl proved to me that the generations before me not only have a pulse but a strong heartbeat.