Summer Love: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl is a small summer coming-of age tale that gives you that emotional connection the big summer blockbusters can’t

Do not be so quick to dismiss young adult fiction. Most of it is probably pretty tepid, sure, and you’re right to generally assume that if they’re making a movie out of it, the book had to be a massive hit and therefore lacking in nuance and complexity. But by this point, hasn’t the relative quality of The Hunger Games series put Twilight into a more reasonable perspective?

There have been a series of very good films based on novels featuring (if not directly aimed at) teenagers. In consecutive years, we’ve seen good-to-great adaptations of (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), (The Spectacular Now) and (The Fault in Our Stars), not to mention less-heralded original numbers like (The Kings of Summer.) So, smart, thoughtful movies about teenagers are kind of having a moment. Fox Searchlight certainly thinks so. After watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl win both the audience and jury prizes at Sundance this year (a rare feat), the studio acquired the rights to the movie for around $12 million. Movie financing is weird, but that’s a lot for distribution rights. So what did they get in return?

Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews, (Me and Earl) is not just a movie about someone dying of cancer, which the title—and the film—treats rather bluntly. Not dismissively, but matter-of-factly. The film somehow wraps broad comedy and coming-of-age elements around its emotional center while featuring a fairly remarkable visual show from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. The dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke from Bates Motel), who learns early in her senior year that she has leukemia. Her mother (a perpetually tipsy Molly Shannon) phones in a favor to a friend, who convinces her son, Greg (Thomas Mann), to visit Rachel despite only being acquaintances. It will do both of them good, it is figured.

The friendship develops, of course, and both Cooke and Mann bring the frequent ease and occasional anxiousness that comes with new friendships. Complicating matters for them are Greg’s solitary nature and Rachel’s worsening health. But they do find common ground as outsiders and soon enough, it’s not two people pretending to be friends anymore. Greg doesn’t cotton to closeness easily. In fact, he describes Earl (RJ Cyler), his only real lifelong friend, as a co-worker. There’s truth to that, however. The boys have been making their own short parodies of classic films for years, inspired by their exposure to Werner Herzog flicks and other heady favorites through the influence of Greg’s bizarre father (Nick Offerman). To lighten the mood here and there, Gomez-Rejon flashes some of these films, efforts like 2:48 Cowboy, taking a run at Midnight Cowboy, and My Dinner with Andre the Giant.

Despite the fun and games, you know where this is going eventually: At some point, the illness has to be dealt with in the foreground rather than the background. Here again, (Me and Earl) and (the Dying Girl”) don’t come at it in a traditional way. Perhaps the best that can be said about this film is that it’s not just told from Greg’s perspective but that its emotional cues are his, as well. We’re not watching a document of a teenager’s life with appropriate adult experience and distance. The way the film is written and shot reflects his angst, emotion, confusion and powerlessness.

Three films released since April have made over a billion dollars at the box office: (Furious 7, Avenger: The Age of Ultron and Jurassic World,) which did so in a record 11 days. But summer is also a great time to find smaller films designed as counterprogramming to the unabashed commercialism of the season. If you’re looking for that, start here.