“Me & Earl & the Dying Girl” gets the coming-of-age story right
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to compare films against type. Whether judging a film against others in a series or others in a genre, it’s important to note the common themes and goals and evaluate the film on how effectively these are developed by the filmmakers.
Of course, the film should be judged against itself as well: How well does the film tell its story and what choices are made by the filmmakers to enhance the experience of the audience?
One of the more prevalent American film tropes is the coming-of-age, end-of-high-school drama/comedy, in which social interactions are more important than anything, everyone fits neatly into a group, and teachers are a genuine rarity. The relative popularity of these films is based partly on the unique, shared experience of public school. Everyone has their stories and all of them take place in between the bells.
As Tennessee Williams said, “Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” And so, many of these films seem the same, because we the audience share the same experiences, the same exaggerations, the same heart. The teenage experience is, at times, excruciatingly raw, and viewing a coming-of-age story is always meant to be cathartic. “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl” is one such film that hits all the right notes and does so with exceptional aplomb.
Greg begins his story the same way many of the heroes in films of this type do—by writing his college entrance essay. There is not a high school film in existence that does not place an enormous amount of emphasis on college admission. It’s no wonder high schools students fail to see skilled trades as an option at the end of their compulsory education. Most media fail to even present them as an option.
At any rate, Greg is telling the audience the story of his senior year. A classmate has developed leukemia and Greg’s mother is forcing Greg to spend time with her.
Before long, Greg and Rachel (the aforementioned dying girl) have developed a genuine friendship. Greg introduces her to his friend Earl, a young man from the poor part of town with a completely different life experience that allows him to speak the truth to those around him, and Earl introduces Rachel to a hobby he and Greg have had since childhood.
Due to Earl’s home circumstances, the pair spent most of their formative years at Greg’s, watching classic and esoteric films, and then recreating their own versions of them, using terrible puns. Some examples are: “2:48 PM Cowboy,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Rosemary’s Baby Carrots,” “Grumpy Cul-De-Sacs.” The relationships continue to develop and Greg and Earl are forced to look at themselves and their situation differently and learn hard lessons.
“Me & Earl & the Dying Girl” follows the formula without deviating or innovating. And yet, it never seems formulaic. Nor does it seem forced or weepy, as a film about a dying teenager is wont to do. Instead, the characters are charming and, if not realistic, at least relatable.
I’ve met few high school students like Greg and Earl and Rachel, fewer teachers like Mr. McCarthy, and visited few schools that allow open anarchy during lunchtime. But, again, films like this are based on memory. They are influenced by what it feels like to be a teenager and not necessarily what it’s actually like to be a teenager.
Everyone is more eloquent in their own minds, long-remembered conversations are always more meaningful than passing small talk. Greg has constructed a reality for himself in the face of an enormously difficult challenge and tells it to the audience through his own deeply conflicted emotions. However, in spite of the heavy-handed subject matter, the film is light, funny and far more enjoyable than many other films in this genre.
“Me & Earl & the Dying Girl” was received to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and won the U.S. Drama Audience Prize. It’s easy to see why—the film is a genuine pleasure to watch, even if it stays true to form without exploring outside the norm. Sometimes, the box exists for a reason.