Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Greg (Thomas Mann) is one of those nerdy high school guys who relies on detachment, parody, and self-deprecation to survive. He tells us about all the “tribes” in high school (the punks, the jocks, the brains, the popular girls), but he doesn't seem to belong to any of them—-though he says he can be conversant with any of them.
His only real friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), who doesn't live that far away, but in a much worse neighborhood. Since Earl is black, and Greg is white, their close friendship is unlikely, but they've known each other since kindergarten, and they feel comfortable in each other's presence. Since they were little kids, they've produced these awful home movies, parodies, really, of famous films. It's their way of being kitschy and campy without having to use those words. Oh, and Earl also supplies the scatological humor when we start to get too sappy.
Sometimes Greg's thought process leads us to some animation, as when a pretty girl at school, who is like a moose in the woods, steps on him, a little mouse, just by pointedly ignoring him, squashing his ego without her even realizing it. Greg doesn't date anybody. His parents seem OK, though a little self-absorbed themselves. His Dad is a tenured sociology professor who hangs around the house all day watching old nature movies and making snide remarks about them. His mother does have some social skills, although this is what gets Greg in trouble: she's friends with the Mom of Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who's suddenly been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg's Mom says he absolutely has to go over to Rachel's house to see her. Greg resists adamantly, saying that he hardly knows her and certainly wouldn't know what to say to her, but his Mom insists. So Greg trudges over to the pretty girl's house, feeling like a field mouse about to get stepped on by a moose.
No, this doesn't turn into one of those sickly-sweet love stories. Greg and Rachel don't develop a hot romance. At first, they can hardly think of anything to say to each other. But eventually, Greg's sense of humor is just the medicine Rachel needs, in the midst of people either feeling sorry for her or studiously avoiding her or saying stupid schmaltzy things or maybe even all three. Eventually, Earl meets Rachel, also, and while teasing Greg about his intentions, actually admires Rachel for not wanting pity or solicitousness.
It's both a comedy and a drama that quite adroitly jumps back and forth across that dividing line. Greg has a great sense of humor, but he's insecure. Rachel fights her anger and depression, but mostly she just feels terrible, though even when she loses her hair she's glad for Greg to come over and try to distract her a little bit, even if the humor is contrived. There are some laugh-out-loud bits, and some really sad parts, but Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is adept at capturing both. And the only time Greg takes himself too seriously is when Rachel seems to be giving up.
Sure, the characters are slightly too old for their parts. But they play them well, anyway, and give us a quirky, irreverent, offbeat little teen comedy/drama that's got its heart in all the right places.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. Have you been close to someone who was dying? How did the relationship change?
  2. Who were the “tribes” in your high school?
  3. When have you developed an unlikely friendship, and what were the circumstances?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfe is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas