“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” addresses cancer with funny script, solid performances

Charles Liu

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about a boy and a girl who has cancer. Friendship blossoms between them, and refreshingly enough, it remains purely that.

At first glance, “Dying Girl” might look like “The Fault in Our Stars,” but it really has more in common with “50/50,” tackling the subject of cancer with humor. It’s superior to most teenage dramas of its kind, and it earns all its tear-jerking moments.

The main character, Greg (Thomas Mann), narrates the story. He’s a socially awkward high schooler who has trouble making friends. Most of his relationships involve superficial interactions with his high school’s various cliques, and he rarely opens himself up to others. His only companion is Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes parody movies of classic films.

When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) force him to befriend her. Greg reluctantly does so, thinking they’ll only hang out once and never speak again. Instead, he and Rachel become inseparable.

As Rachel’s condition gradually worsens, Greg futilely attempts to mask his sadness, inadvertently revealing his own insecurities and threatening his friendships with Rachel and Earl.

Mann, who has played the awkward teen role before, delivers a good performance that balances humor and sadness. He draws laughs whenever he flubs an encounter with his crush, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), but also moves viewers to tears, especially when Greg breaks down and admits he hates himself.

Cooke lends Rachel strength and vulnerability. While Rachel faces death with grace and dignity, the road to the end is a scary one she’s not ready to travel. Cooke demonstrates dramatic chops with emotional monologues but excels in her quietest moments, letting her facial expressions do all the talking.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon imbues “Dying Girl” with enormous personality. Captions such as “Day One of Doomed Friendship” mark different chapters in the story. Greg’s feelings are symbolized by humorous stop-motion animations of a moose, representing Madison, stomping a squirrel, which represents Greg’s heart.

Hugh Jackman even gets a vocal cameo when Greg stares at a poster of Wolverine. These quirky moments mold “Dying Girl” into a spiritual successor to “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Juno.”

The script, which Jesse Andrews adapted from his own novel, is relentlessly funny. The characters deliver witty lines and conversations generally stray into oddball topics. Andrews also demonstrates a fondness for gags – Earl unfailingly reminds us of his obsession with female breasts and Greg’s buff, tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) constantly tells his students to “respect the research.”

“Dying Girl” mostly succeeds as a movie about genuine teens, but some characters — a cartoonish goth kid, Greg’s over-the-top dad, and Rachel’s Mrs. Robinson-esque mom — are too ridiculous to be believable. They feel out of place and undermine the film’s realistic atmosphere.   

When “Dying Girl” hits its home stretch, humor seeps out of the picture and its lessons take center stage. Its primary lesson is people need to accept themselves. By maintaining shallow but cordial relationships, Greg protects himself from rejection. “Dying Girl” argues his lifestyle is an unfulfilling one, and it isn’t bad to be vulnerable.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will be remembered as a great coming-of-age dramedy. It’s full of laughs and heart and elevated by a great cast with two solid leads. While the quirkiness might be overdone at times, it effectively sets the film apart from others of its kind. Greg says the film isn’t a typical romantic story, and he’s right — it’s much more than that.

Title: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Running Time: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Score: 9/10