The awkward teen coming-of-age story has become a staple in independent film over the past few years. Whether it is the latest John Green novel being adapted or something starring Michael Cera, the genre is finding its voice in this nexus of filmmaking — and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl knows this.
Playing like the (500) Days of Summer or Annie Hall of teen movies, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that plays off of the tropes of this genre while still adhering to them in order to allow the plot to function. But with the aid of relatively new director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and the stand-out performances by Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke, this film feels like a fresh change of pace from the rest — and shows that originality can be felt even from the most familiar places.
Greg (Mann) is our awkward teen who is on the tail end of high school, heading into college. He has never fit into any click, and he is proud of that, instead he knows just enough to get by in each one and lives his merry life as an invisible in-between of the generic high school experience. His only friend is Earl (RJ Cyler) who he has known since kindergarten. He refers to Earl as his co-worker rather than friend since the two share a passion for classic and foreign cinema even going as far as to parody some notable titles such as The 400 Blows, Rashomon, and A Clockwork Orange.
While his life is seemingly fine, Greg is forced by his mom and dad (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to go and visit Rachel (Cooke), who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and try to give her someone to hang out with. Begrudgingly, Greg goes over there and while it starts out as rocky and awkward as his personality allows, the union takes and the two become friends.
It is easy to get bogged down int he tropes of a teen movie, and the film plays with your expectations in this way. Throughout the film, we see title cards that help move us through the timeline such as “The Part Where We Begin The Doomed Friendship” and constant updates as to how many days it has been going on. It also plays with the fact that we expect Greg and Rachel to fall for each other and start a Fault in Our Stars type romance for the end of her days.
It is easy to fall into that expectation because when the film was about to premiere, a lot of people were comparing the two films based solely on their subject matter. But Me and Earl is much different than Faults thanks to the hand of Gomez-Rejon, who is clearly as much a film fan as the two characters in the movie are. Gomez-Rejon is always testing our film knowledge whether it is with a scene that plays alongside the suite from Vertigo where Scotty and Madeleine face their fears or his clear love for all things foreign reflected in the tastes of two of his main characters.
He also shows an adept directing eye and allows the scenes to play out without relying on cuts, which is a tendency with this genre. He allowed the scene to be dominated by the actors and perfected the spacing in order to portray the sense of the scene before letting Mann or Cooke or Cyler lead the way, which was impressive for a genre that sometimes tries to force us into feeling alongside the character.
But the most impressive thing that the film does is allows us to appreciate another teen coming-of-age tale without feeling like another chapter of something we have seen before. It has all the ingredients of a movie that has come out under the same genre umbrella, but works to actively be something original and different and there is something commendable about that.
It is very much the Annie Hall of the genre because while Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t re-inventing the wheel in terms of teen movies, it is making a statement that originality can still flow through these stories and not to get cynical with the idea that they won’t improve. Much like Annie Hall did with romantic comedies and most recently, Mad Max: Fury Road did with blockbusters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl sets a new bar for teen movies and challenges the ones that will follow to keep up with the original style that it exuded.