When making movies about illness, filmmakers are often tempted to concentrate on startling images, the skeletal hands, tangled IV tubes, beeping monitors. The visual canon of on-screen illness allows directors to score points for gritty realism, by relying on the evidence of a character’s physical decline. That isn’t what we see with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a movie that joins a strange trend of on-screen narratives about terminally ill teens. But neither does director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon shy from a visceral sense of trauma. While the movie may not be geared exclusively toward the same audience of teens and twenty-somethings as The Fault in Our Stars, it very much belongs to the same strain of films that circle around a young girl dying of cancer.
Despite its place in a disturbingly trendy fascination with young death, this less splashy newcomer does something less obvious, and more tender, than its blockbuster predecessor of last summer. The film retains an empathy with its three lead characters, even in the face of their poor and selfish decisions. That empathy evolves into the movie’s central, surprising trait—its unglamorous, unapologetic humor.
The laughter is convincing and earnest. And that self-aware but uninhibited laughter is what makes the movie’s particular brand of intimacy—with suffering, with loss—so natural. The movie’s premise, at the outset, adopts a relieving distance from the titular dying girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke). The teenaged narrator and lead protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann), is in fact carefully distant from most people at his high school. Although apparently personable, with a keen understanding of the people around him, he refuses to foster close relationships; his main motivation seems to be to skate, with as few complications as possible, through the end of high school. With Rachel, as with many others, he only has the vaguest kind of friendship —an acquaintance, he calls her adamantly. But to his terror, his mother demands that he do the correct thing and visit Rachel in the days following her diagnosis. It’s a haphazard connection between the two: instantly recognizable between them, in their first reluctant meeting, is the polite wall of platitudes, sympathies and condolences, the “proper” way to approach illness and its sufferers.
With a well-placed joke though, the film takes both audience and characters by surprise. The script dismantles the cautious distance between the characters on screen. We feel the sense of stiffness, of formulated pity, dissolve and the space around them relax, even as neither of them changes position. An intimacy has been established between Greg and Rachel and between Greg and Rachel’s illness. Unpretentious language stands in for pointed close-ups or dramatic staging, and in moments like this, novelist Jesse Andrews’s screenplay shines: in adapting his debut novel, he relies on the force of what can be said and what remains unsaid to transform our understanding of the scene, and of the silences so often shared by the characters.
Greg and best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) are amateur filmmakers, turning classics on their heads, into A Sockwork Orange and The 400 Bros, recognizing the moments that can be cracked open and turned inside out—for a laugh, for a moment of understanding. Beyond a playful and perhaps showy interaction with film history, that impulse to capture and reframe is typical of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in interacting and reframing narratives about grief.
That devotion among the three leads doesn’t allow the conventional softening distance—the distance of platitudes and get well soon cards and, frequently, Hollywood movies—to intervene between the experience of watching and the experience of grieving.
And yet the in-film filmmakers struggle under the burden of making a film about Rachel’s illness, as Greg struggles to formulate an essay about what Rachel’s passing means to him. The film doesn’t resort to the trope of hesitancy before artistic clarity. We can’t quite say at the film’s conclusion if anyone, even Gomez-Rejon, has succeeded in framing a story that translates loss into meaning. There is no peaceful moment of acceptance; only a raw, ongoing sense of absence, and a real weight of a Rachel-less future stretching out in front of the characters. Andrews invents a spirited maneuver, arriving just at the point of a familiar question—will Rachel, the bright-eyed young creative, bring us closer to some grand, universal truth in the twilight of her short life? And the answer is no, because she has no obligation to. It’s a process of private understanding. No Percy Shelley appears to eulogize the passing potential of this gifted young person. Her suffering isn’t aestheticized. Repeatedly Rachel verbally reminds us that it’s her suffering to undergo; it belongs to no one else. While we, through Greg, have one eye sincerely on hope, she alone knows how to look at it directly.
The movie’s greatest merit is its refusal to rest on the easy moments, moments that have been written and mourned before. There is the disconcerting but not disengaging sense throughout that the movie—or rather, Greg—doesn’t know what story he can tell. What took me by surprise most was not the more-or-less technical device of the laughter, but the genuine humility in Jesse Andrews’s screenplay. It focuses largely on what can’t be said, allowing for broad moments of silence, as Greg waits for the jigsaw pieces to fall into place, to make some cohesive statement that he, then, can relate onto the page. It’s the but what can I even say device, established in the film’s first establishing shot. We, the viewers, know that Greg is writing the aftermath of this story, all in hindsight at his desk as the movie opens. And we share that grasping uncertainty with him, sensing his inability to communicate the journey.
My expectation was a spectacle of sanitized suffering, as we saw with Fault in Our Stars, a book about chronic illness translated on screen as a soft-edged romance, with a single moment of what can be described as “graphic” illness. The temptation surfaced there to communicate through shock, not through patience. Chronic illness in Andrews’s script is not about spectacle but about silence. It’s something that isn’t articulated. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may ask us to laugh at the sacrosanct, but it does so tenderly, quietly, with a special sense of how to speak, respectfully, to private suffering.
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures