In case you need a refresher on the plot, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) make no-budget films inspired by their favorites. The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros. Eyes Wide Shut becomes Eyes Wide Butt. Peeping Tom becomes Pooping Tom. You get the idea. Their lives are changed forever (as is often the case in coming-of-age stories) when Greg’s mom, played with subtle shrillness by Connie Britton, forces Greg to hang out with leukemia-stricken Rachel, played by the adorable Olivia Cooke.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose only directing credits prior were episodes of Glee and American Horror Story and a remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, has assembled quite a team for this film. Cyler’s Earl endeared himself to me just as he did in the book. Mann is great at playing dopey and awkward; it makes him relatable. Cooke, who seemed set on becoming this decade’s scream queen, shines in her role as the dying girl. With eyes bigger than hubcaps, you can tell exactly what she’s feeling just by looking into them. She’s got a real silent film star quality about her.
The rest of the casting is pitch-perfect as well. SNL alum Molly Shannon gets to flex some dramatic muscles as Rachel’s mom, always with a drink in her hand and warning Greg to never end up like her absentee husband. Nick Offerman is great, albeit underused, as Greg’s tenured professor dad (but I could watch him all day). Jon Bernthal is also good in his role as Mr. McCarthy, the tattooed teacher whose mantra is “Respect the Research” and may or may not have drug-laced soup that inadvertently causes Greg and Earl to trip.
The camera work, fluidly kinetic and reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, whip pans around showing off the beautifully simple muted color palette, courtesy of Chung-hoon Chung (cinematographer of Oldboy, Thirst and Stoker). Oftentimes that beautiful imagery is paired with music by the likes of Brian Eno, Ennio Morricone and Explosions in the Sky.
If all that wasn’t enough to entice you, remember that it was filmed in Pittsburgh and as such is peppered with Pittsburgh flair. The Point Breeze house where Andrews grew up is used as Greg’s house. At one point, Earl scoffs at the idea of going all the way to Lawrenceville. Rachel urges Greg to apply to
University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh State University. A boy is seen wearing a yarmulke with the Pittsburgh Pirates logo on it. I figured that had to be a prop made for the movie, but it’s totally a thing.
It’s clear the filmmakers love movies as much as Greg and Earl. When the duo are looking for new inspiration for a film they’re making for Rachel in a High Fidelity-esque movie store, filmed at Mind Cure Records in Polish Hill, we catch glimpses of obscure films such as Chris Marker’s La Jetée along with more mainstream fare like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Kubrik’s Paths of Glory on the packed shelves. When Greg finally premiers his film to Rachel it’s a perfect union of visually stunning imagery and moving music. Such an emotionally charged scene would have been ruined if the two had been presented as teens in love throughout.
That Greg and Rachel aren’t presented as star-crossed lovers is one of the things I loved most about this movie. There is no “lifesaving” romance. No grand, sweeping gestures or romantic getaways to Amsterdam. It’s grounded in the world of a weird teenager and his very sick friend; no depictions of manic pixie dream girls (or boys) here. It’s something I’ve been longing to see in cinema since the end of Garden State.
I cannot overstate how refreshing it was that no love story was shoehorned in. Their friendship is more beautiful than any teen romance ever committed to celluloid. It’s also refreshing to see a young adult movie that isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia; I can only imagine the fun Greg and Earl would have spoofing the current glut of such films.
With Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews, who doubled as the screenwriter, have given us a new classic in the pantheon of coming-of-age movies. It circles well-known tropes without ever succumbing to their clichés. For me, this earns a spot on the shelf with Stand by Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Little Miss Sunshine and The Way Way Back. If you loved the book as much as I did, I’d wager that you’ll also love the movie. When it opens in a town near you, I hope you’ll get out there and see it. I know I can’t wait to go see it again.