Put teenagers in a cancer setting, and their adapting to a changed life will be interesting, instructive, and even entertaining, just as we see in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The author of the book and screenplay, Jesse Andrews, must have had personal experience of that situation, since the characterization of it in this film is uncannily realistic. (I worked in the pediatric unit of a cancer center for 24 years, and found the adolescents and their friends to be as fascinating and admirable as the young people in this film.)
We meet Greg (Mann) first as a disengaged high school student who is self-deprecating to a fault, actively shuns every opportunity for attachment, and has a tendency to blurt out wrong and hurtful observations, after which he is mortified. The only one he lets in at all is Earl (Cyler), and still regards him as a “coworker” instead of a friend. Their “work” is making short movies that are playful, cynical, artsy, and clever. But of course, Greg disparages them to others.
Greg’s parents (Offerman and Britton) confront him after school one day and tell him about his classmate Rachel (Cooke) who has been diagnosed with a kind of leukemia that is difficult to treat. His mother then insists that he call Rachel and visit her. He is horrified, even writhing on the floor in horror. But his mother insists, and although Rachel does not really want him to come see her either, he pleads for her to agree; otherwise his mother will make his life a living hell.
Thus begins their reluctant attachment, but sure enough before long he is making her smile, then laugh at his kooky sense of humor. He brings Earl along with him sometimes, and he and Rachel hit it off as well. After hearing about the amateur movies, one of Rachel’s friends proposes to Greg that they make a film especially for Rachel, and that project becomes a central point for the rest of the story. Of course, Greg is terrified that the film won’t be perfect, so it’s a long time in the making.
Greg is devoted to Rachel throughout her treatment, and they become fast friends. She is mature for her age and a keen observer who is able to give Greg encouragement and helpful feedback about himself. Chemotherapy makes her tired and causes her hair to fall out but Greg and her other friends stick by her, something so essential in coping with the arduous treatments. Also to be expected in times of stress, there are disagreements and quarrels that are eventually resolved.
There is so much to like in the film in addition to the above. Entertaining artwork, cartoons, and videos are sprinkled throughout, but also demonstrate the value of creative projects in coping with the stresses of severe illness and high school. Some of the adults make significant contributions to the success of the film, such as Greg’s dad who is home a lot and always eating some kind of strange food. The history teacher allows Greg and Earl to eat lunch in his office and imparts wise counsel to them from time to time.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the director has really done a remarkable job in making a film that mixes tragedy, comedy, and artistic creations in a tender and loving way. I’m sure Jesse Andrews’ writing deserves the praise in some measure as well, along with the three young actors who enliven the story and make it seem like we’re right alongside them in navigating the shoals of cancer. A planned encounter at the end is left unresolved, but nevertheless, the film well deserves the prizes (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award) it received during the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
You will laugh; you will cry; but you will be entertained throughout.
Grade: A- By Donna R. Copeland