Winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at Sundance Film Festival is not an unprecedented achievement. After Fruitvale in 2013 and Whiplash last year, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl tallies the third year in a row that a Dramatic-category film has won highest praise from both sides of the aisle. IVY’s chapter in San Francisco hosted an advanced private screening of this poignant “dramedy,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and based on Jesse Andrew’s 2012 novel of the same name, at Sundance Kabuki Theatre on May 26.
One might say the film won this honor by knowing what it means to lose. The story follows Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an interminably awkward high school senior, who slowly befriends Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Their friendship grows in pace with the decline in Rachel’s health, as Greg’s wish to “survive” high school metaphorically collides with the true life-and-death stakes of Rachel’s illness. Gomez-Rejon, formerly a personal assistant to Martin Scorcese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, decided to make this film about losing a loved one after the death of his father. With Fox Searchlight Pictures acquiring distribution rights for a high seven-figure sum, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl offers a heart-wrenching hook similar to the tremendously successful The Fault in Our Stars.
Gomez-Rejon admirably tempers the bleak subject matter with supporting roles by favorite comedians, like Parks and Rec’s Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a bathrobe-wrapped sociology professor and exotic amateur chef, and SNL alumna Molly Shannon as Rachel’s flirty, tipsy but loving mother. Camera movement also creates levity by taking on the kind of quick axial pivot and long-shot-to-extreme-close-up zooms that we might see in a Wes Anderson flick; like the dialogue, our perspective skips playfully through scenes that could easily be more subdued and somber.
But the lighthearted melancholic tone is set most by Mann’s Greg, whose quirky physical charms and self-effacing voice over narration drive the film. When his mom – “the LeBron James of nagging” – first forces him to spend time with Rachel, Greg collapses to the floor and, with a palsied slide towards the sanctity of his room, loudly slurs “I’m entering a subhuman state!” His riffs on illicit human-pillow love affairs endear him quickly to Rachel and to us, while also affirming that the bond between the two main characters is platonic, if not emotionally complicated.
The conceit that wins over both cinephiles and cynics, though, is that Greg and his friend/“coworker” Earl (RJ Cyler), a black kid from the other side of town, are filmmakers themselves. Basing their craft on their idol Werner Herzog, Greg and Earl have made dozens of short homages to great films by remaking them in a Sesame Street-like idiom: Senior Citizen Kane, 2:48PM Cowboy, and A Sock-Work Orange, with droogs cast as bowler-hatted sock puppets, are among the most amusing that Rachel watches to distract herself from the pain of cancer treatment and the dread of dying young.
Yet the amateur filmmaking becomes more than just comic relief, or an insider’s nod to the history of cinema, when Greg is charged with creating a film for Rachel (Warning: Spoiler Alert) before she passes away. Devoting the entire spring of his senior year to this gift rather than to course work, Greg’s admission offer from Pittsburgh State is rescinded even as his relationship with Rachel strains to the breaking point. At the climax – on prom night, naturally – a tux-wearing Greg visits Rachel’s hospital bed in order to show her that film. A series of slow motion close-ups of Rachel, her mother, Earl and Greg flares out to an evocative stop-animated sequence with colorful shapes fluttering in space. Rachel dies there, her eyes fixed on the delicate abstractions that represent perhaps nothing more than the love of one friend for another.
On the cusp of saccharine, the film models an expression of love that we all feel in the face of such hollow loss. Words always seem wrong in these moments, and the only articulation of how much someone means is by other means: a poem, a sustained chord of music and, in this case, the language of cinema. The film reminds us that in life, as in art, winning is sometimes about doing the best you can when you lose.
George Philip LeBourdais is an IVY Member (SF) and a Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University, where he teaches courses on photography and film. Connect and collaborate with him here!