Gomez-Rejon doses witty, emotional drama in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Grade: A

Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

The set for both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Pittsburgh again becomes the epicenter of an emotional and tragic coming-of-age story in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Gomez-Rejon, who directed episodes of “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” adapted the drama from a book of the same name by Pittsburgh-born author Jesse Andrews. It stars Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an intelligent but reserved student at Schenley High School. Along with his friend, Earl (Ronald Cyler II), Greg makes films that parody classic and foreign cinema, inspired by his eclectic father (Nick Offerman).

After Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) forces him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, Greg hesitantly obliges, and the two become friends. Eventually, Rachel’s friend suggests to Greg that he make a movie for Rachel, and Greg must confront his feelings of genuine friendship with her and accept her ill fate.

Greg narrates the film, adding commentary and explaining scenes. The movie also shows select clips from Greg’s and Earl’s stop-motion movies made with diorama pieces, which serve as analogies to explain Greg’s thoughts and ideas.

True to the book’s Pittsburgh roots, many East End neighborhoods, Pitt and Oakland get cameos in the film. The high school scenes were filmed at the former Schenley High School, where Andrews attended school, and in North Oakland, with both the Cathedral of Learning and the Chevron Science Center visible. Greg enrolls in Pittsburgh State University, a possible reference to Pitt.Rachel even has a photograph of Towers hanging above her bed.

The emotional scenes between Greg and Rachel are heavy, genuine and beautifully acted. Mann portrays Greg as a detached and intelligent high schooler who thinks that making passing connections with people will help him avoid making genuine ones. Mann’s monotonic delivery of cynical and sarcastic statements portray his indifference.

Cooke’s Rachel is a bitter and emotionally withdrawn girl whose cancer visibly advances throughout the film. She is initially distrustful of Greg, but later comes to realize that he truly cares about her and can make her feel better. Cooke shows Rachel’s bitterness and pessimism through her facial expressions and blunt and bleak delivery of updates about her illness.

In one scene, Rachel tells Greg that she decided to stop taking her cancer medication. For the first time in the film, Greg shows true emotion and admits that he cares about Rachel.He becomes angry and passionate, divulging into a series of broken thoughts and feelings about Rachel and why she selfishly shouldn’t choose to end her own life.

This scene lands especially hard because seeing Mann act and speak so passionately underscores the severity and importance of the scene. Cooke maintains Rachel’s apathy and pessimism, and pleads to let her make the decision for herself. The chemistry between the actors feels genuine, with emotion and tension slowly building throughout the scene.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a coming-of-age story that combines the quirky and witty characters of “Juno” with the emotional gravitas of “The Fault in Our Stars.” Greg is similar to Juno as a witty but reserved know-it-all thrust into a serious and emotional, though ultimately transformative, situation. The relationship between Greg and Rachel is tragic and deep, eventually leading to closure, similar to Hazel’s and Augustus’ relationship in “The Fault in Our Stars.”

As Greg ultimately learns in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” connecting with others, even if for a short time, is always better than being alone.