The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



Death in High School

Fox Searchlight Pictures
 105 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke 
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Movies about the making of movies tend to be clever and intellectual, as demonstrated by last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman. Movies about dying teenagers tend to be sad and emotional, as demonstrated by last year’s popular The Fault in Our Stars. So, it comes as no surprise that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is a movie about both making (amateur home) movies and a dying teenage girl tries to be both intellectual and emotional. It would be difficult for any director to make that combination work on both levels. In this case, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film does better as a tribute to the cinema than as a tearjerker.


The “me” of Me and Earl is Greg Moore (Thomas Mann), the type of dispassionately aloof teenager seen far more often in movies than in real life. Greg tries to glide by unnoticed through high school, on the fringes of various social groups but in reality noticed by none. He disguises his extreme self-centeredness by adopting an uncaring attitude. He cares little for schoolwork or most popular pastimes other than the movies, most notably obscure (for his generation) films such as the Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski collaborations.


Greg’s only friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), a black teen with similar cinematic interests. Greg can’t even bring himself to refer to Earl as a friend, instead referring to Earl as his co-worker. Greg justifies that description because he and Earl have been making parodic home movies since they were children. These films, with names like “My Dinner with Andre the Giant” and “Rosemary Baby Carrots,” are Greg’s only real passion; that is, until the dying girl comes around.


The dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate Greg barely knows who has been diagnosed with cancer. Rachel’s mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is friendly with Greg’s mother (Connie Britton), who cajoles him into paying Rachel a visit to cheer her up. Rachel doesn’t want a forced pity party visit from a stranger, but eventually she lets Greg spend the afternoon. Soon, they start connecting with each other, and a real friendship blossoms. Greg shows Rachel some of his movies and agrees to make one for her. And, as Greg spends more time with Rachel, he winds up having to shed his former anonymity in regard to some of his other classmates, not always for the better.


As a look at a couple of amateur film buffs making their own movie, Me and Earl is reminiscent of Be Kind Rewind, except that Greg and Earl (and especially screenwriter Jesse Andrews, who adapted his own novel) are better at creating fake films than the adults in Rewind were. The snippets shown here resemble the best moments from Saturday Night Live skits, with Mann and Cyler (and other actors playing younger versions of them) assuming a number of different roles. True, it might have been difficult for the film to maintain the joke for longer than ten seconds at a time, but the clips are a great shout out for film buffs like myself. Along those lines, Mann also does a great Werner Herzog impression.


In addition to the film shout outs, Me and Earl is filled with whimsical touches. Some of them are amusing, like Greg’s father (Nick Offerman), who is a “gourmet chef” who prepares nothing but revolting dishes for his family to eat. Others start out amusing but grow old, like titles that read “Day 1 of Doomed Friendship” and go on from there. And some of them flat out don’t work like the completely bizarre weirdo classmates who cause trouble for Greg.


But for the most part, Me and Earl is funny in a type of hip, intellectual way that challenges viewers to keep on their toes to spot the inside references. That’s the main reason it cleaned up at some of the film festivals this year and with those critics who enjoy movies that cater to their breadth of knowledge about the cinema. For those in the audience who don’t obsess over Werner Herzog references, there are still some funny moments, such as a terrific performance by the too-seldom-seen-nowadays Molly Shannon as Denise’s alcoholic mom who is a 21st century Mrs. Robinson toying with the idea of getting friendly with Greg.


But clever wit and inside references and cutesy titles about doomed friendshps do not lend themselves to viewers taking the emotional moments in a movie seriously. And movies about dying teenage girls and the guys who care for them are chock full of serious emotional moments. When the time came for humor to take a back seat to sadness, I found myself curiously unmoved, and I’m as big a softy as there is for tear jerkers. However, I never found myself able to take Greg and Rachel seriously enough as real people to care about her impending death and his reaction.


The fault, I believe lies with the director. This is only Gomez-Rejon’s second feature film, and he needed to show a bit more restraint in the earlier scenes. By not going completely overboard in trying to showcase every wry witticism possible, he could have made the transition to seriousness easier for the audience. One of the scenes in the film contains a revelation that’s nearly magical and a complete surprise about the different types of artistic talent people can display. It also left me admiring its cleverness rather than being in the least bit moved.


I can’t fault the actors here. The three leads are all likable young talents and Mann and Cyler seemed quite natural, even when their characters were acting in quite artificial ways. Cooke was also quite believable, although her experience playing a girl with cystic fibrosis on Bates Motel was good practice for this role.


There’s a lot to admire in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. There’s a good bit to chuckle at and more than a few moments to laugh out loud about. But it’s not a movie that reveals anything about the character of anyone who seems the least bit realistic, and, especially, it’s not a movie with whose emotions I could empathize. In the end, the film is just like its title, able to elicit a smile but not a tear. 

Read other reviews of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl:


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) on IMDb