We all know the dying girl.
Not literally, of course. In the Sundance prize winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, that girl is Rachel, a high-school senior with leukemia played with a mesmerizing juxtaposition of honest grit and graceful poise by Olivia Cooke.
But we all know people like her. Maybe they’re not teenagers. Maybe they’re not girls. But we know them. We see them in Rachel, and we carry them with us as we watch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
It’s what makes the spectacular coming-of-age story and unrivaled tearjerker one of the year’s most essential, most cathartic films.
Relatability is the goal echoed by the cast and the film’s director, Alejandro Gomez-Rejon, when we speak a few days before the film hits theaters, which it does this Friday. “I’ve learned that thing that I heard about years ago, that sometimes the most personal work becomes the most universal,” Gomez-Rejon tells me.
Throughout the course of promoting Me and Earl since its effusive Sundance reception, the team is finding out just how personal—and just how universal—it is.
The film is a descendant of The Breakfast Club and maybe even Juno—a novel depiction of the universality of the high school experience, but through the very specific lens of protagonists in hyper-specific circumstances.
There’s Greg (Thomas Mann), a high schooler who basks in his anonymity, content to exist unnoticed and entertain himself making pun-tastic lo-fi parodies of classic films (A Sockwork Orange, Senior Citizen Cane) with his unlikely friend Earl, played by newcomer RJ Cyler in his first film role.
(“I still don’t know how I got here,” Cyler jokes. “I think it’s karma. I should’ve only given that lady $5 that one time, but I gave her a 20.”)
When a school acquaintance of Greg’s is diagnosed with cancer, his over-feeling mother (Connie Britton) forces him to visit her. This is a movie: they obviously become great friends.
She is charmed by his movies. He ends up being asked to make one for her as her health exponentially deteriorates, an effort that throws a grenade at the fortress walls he’d built at school to guarantee his anonymity. As he is forced to contemplate his future after high school, and she’s forced to grapple with the reality that she may not have one, they are both consumed by her illness—and his video project.
It’s a beautiful film. It’s a heartbreaking film, but not in the manipulative “cancer movie” kind of way. It’s hilarious, whimsical, and light-hearted, right up until it rips your heart out in two wrenching tugs with consecutive wordless sequences near the end.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll see yourself in Greg, a quiet teen scared of his future and becoming an adult in spite of himself. And you’ll see, remember, and mourn your own “dying girl.”
Just prior to making Me and Earl, Gomez-Rejon lost his father. A dedication to him plays at the end of the film. “He was the private engine running me while I was making this movie,” he says.
“Who Greg is at the beginning was very much me in high school,” Gomez-Rejon continues. “What he was going through was very much me today.”
Putting the dedication to his father at the end of the film made a private emotional struggle very public. “As soon as I thought that I put myself back together finally, his death went public and that’s another wave of incorporation, having to talk about it,” he says. “It’s good, because talking about it keeps my dad alive.”
Without spoiling the end of the film—only suggesting that you peruse your weekly circular for Kleenex coupons—the ways in which our loved ones stay with us and continue to influence us as we chart our futures is perhaps the most important, most resonant theme of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
A woman and her daughter, who was maybe 10 or 11, pulled Mann aside at the film’s premiere in L.A. The woman told Mann that her daughter just lost her stepfather.
“She said she just wanted to thank me for making something that was so life-affirming and reassuring in a way that made them realize that you can keep learning about someone after they’re gone,” Mann says. “That they’re not truly, truly gone.”
Cooke was particularly struck by an interaction at the cast’s first press tour stop in Phoenix. A group of teenagers had recently lost their friend in a car crash, and one of the boys in the group walked up to her and Gomez-Rejon to tell them how the film reminded him of a quote someone told him to help console him.
“Someone who’s gone is ‘like a stained glass window or a mosaic,’” Gomez-Rejon paraphrases. “’They may not be as clearly defined anymore. But their life and their color is evermore present.’ It’s pretty beautiful.”
The movie doesn’t shy away from how unjustly awful Rachel’s leukemia treatment is. She’s sick, and she looks it. She loses her hair and feels ugly. People tell her she’s brave, but when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be told you’re brave. You want to be told you’re attractive. That you’re sexy. That you’re kicking ass not because you’re fighting cancer, but because you’re getting into the best colleges.
Her situation is portrayed with brutal clarity by Jesse Andrews’s script (which he adapted from his own novel) and Cooke’s complex performance. As Rachel becomes resigned to the disease’s inevitable endgame—not every brave decision involves fighting when you have cancer—Greg dials up his mopish wit and its eventual companion: his bitter frustration.
How is he supposed to plan for his future, let alone finish his movie for Rachel, when Rachel won’t battle for her own? How could she do this to him? How could she do this to her mother? How could she do this to herself? It’s merciless. And, if you remember your “dying girl,” painfully real.
To prepare for the role, Cooke visited a teenage girl with leukemia at a hospital in Los Angeles. After dressing in the protective sanitation gowns when she arrived, she suddenly became worried.
“I didn’t want to seem like this weird reporter-alien coming in to make her feel intimidated or probed,” Cooke says. “I just wanted to sit with her.”
They chatted “like two girls,” Cooke remembers. “The first thing she asked me was, ‘Are you going to shave your head?’ and I didn’t know at that point and felt like such a phony,” she says. “Like of course I’m going to shave my head. I’m not going to wear a stupid bald cap. It would be so insensitive and quite disrespectful if I didn’t.”
For a cancer patient—again, this is where you can’t help but remember your “dying girl”—shaving your head at the behest of disease is a profoundly altering and nearly impossible-to-articulate experience. It’s cathartic, and somewhat empowering. But it’s also heartbreaking, and shame-inducing—whether or not those outside of the experience think it should be.
“A lot of people were saying that it was going to be really liberating, really freeing,” Cooke says. “But it wasn’t at all. People that were saying that had never shaved their head before.”
She says that she felt the loss of her identity when she shaved her hair. The change in the way she was treated was instantly recognizable. It helped her realize how much her hair and her appearance defined her personality, and, perhaps more crucially, how people defined her.
“Walking down the street, I wouldn’t get the attention from men that I was used to getting,” she says. “I didn’t realize that without it I didn’t feel beautiful. Then I got really angry at myself that I needed that to make myself feel good. Then I got bitter about beauty standards and how inaccessible they are for women.”
If there’s one thing (and there are so many things) that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets right about battling cancer, it’s its emotional complexity.
But there are things that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets so right that have nothing to do with its cancer arc.
It’s a coming-of-age story that belongs in the canon with the greats, even more so because of the playful visual storytelling Gomez-Rejon brings to it—likely owed to his time spent as a director in Ryan Murphy’s television wonderland on Glee and American Horror Story.
It’s an imaginative homage to classic film, rare for a movie this accessible and hopefully mass-appealing. That’s something in particular that Gomez-Rejon feels a certain badge of honor about, because of the time he spent as a production assistant for Martin Scorsese on Casino and second unit director for the likes of Nora Ephron and Alejandro Iñárritu.
It’s a story about facing the future, and what we require as people in order to feel safe doing so. But, whether it’s the title, or perhaps because of the amount of press that invokes recent films like The Fault in Our Stars while discussing it, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in danger of being reduced to and branded as the “cancer movie.”
“Certain things you can’t control,” Gomez-Rejon says. “The Fault in Our Stars connection, if people discover our movie because they want that experience, great. But hopefully they’ll understand it’s a very different experience.”
If there’s one thing Me and Earl values—whether it’s the first meeting between Greg and Rachel where Greg tells her he’s only there because his mother forced him to go, or the letter that Rachel leaves for Greg to read at the end of the movie—it’s honesty and the management of expectations.
“The fact is that it’s a cancer thing,” he says. “But it’s so much more than that.”