"Nothing in this life that I've been trying could equal or surpass the art of dying," George Harrison wrote. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Jesse Andrews might have taken inspiration from those lines when concocting Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a quirky yet moving meditation on the life we discover during death.
Belying its title, the film, which was the darling of this year's Sundance Film Festival, plays with our plot expectations, making us constantly question whether we'll actually witness death. You'll get no spoilers here, except to say that you might be surprised by what you do and don't see. This is no The Fault in Our Stars or Love Story. Instead, it's the feel-good terminal-illness film of the year, a cross between Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, with a dash of Werner Herzog.
Greg, an awkward but intellectually witty teenager, thinks he has the politics of high school figured out. Treating all the cliques equally and showing no allegiance to a single one, he's able to remain independent and unburdened by peer pressure or teenage entanglements. He even avoids contact with the stereotypical hot chicks and refuses to call his best buddy Earl a "friend." He's a "co-worker" instead, by virtue of the two making short film parodies together. (Just wait until you see the films!)
This easygoing world is turned upside down when his overbearing mother (the "LeBron James of nagging") suggests he befriend a fellow student, Rachel, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. A reluctant friendship blossoms, but the predictably sweet emotional bonding doesn't, thanks to Gomez-Rejon, who, in just his second directorial effort, leads us down the cinematic path less traveled.
Structurally, the film is oddly flawed. There is virtually no second act, Rachel is absent from the story for too long, the drug humor falls flat, and the production reeks of likability (if that's a bad thing). The script is also peppered with eclectic characters – such as Greg and Earl's favorite teacher (Jon Bernthal) – who never reach their full cinematic potential. But the movie manages to coast on its charm and honesty, its beautifully composed shots and its wonderfully endearing homages to classic cinema long enough to deliver one of the best endings of 2015.
Thomas Mann (Project X) is effective as Greg, but Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) as Rachel and virtual newcomer RJ Cyler as Earl are even better. She conveys a world of suffering and joy in a single expression, while he, playing what could be just another comical African-American cliché, exhibits refreshing realism. Even Molly Shannon as Rachel's mom and Nick Offerman and Connie Britton as Greg's parents add depth and texture to an otherwise straightforward narrative.
"I have no idea how to tell this story," Greg confesses to us at the start of his voice-over narration, which lasts the entire film but is rarely overbearing. Although Greg's admission makes for a nice meta-beginning, it's profoundly ironic considering Gomez-Rejon and Andrews knew exactly what they were doing when they fashioned this coming-of-age tale of life, loss and rebirth.