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Family Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (PG-13)

MeAndEarlAndTheDyingGirl ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 105 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about a trio of high school friends, one of whom develops leukemia; there is cursing, crude language, and discussions and jokes about sex; teenagers smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, and accidentally getting high; one schoolyard fistfight; and a girl’s progression through cancer treatment, including chemotherapy. There will definitely be tears, but perhaps not to the level of last year’s other cancer-tearjerker, “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Film festival favorite ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,’ about a high school senior developing leukemia, has too many hipster traits, but its emotional notes are legitimate and deeply felt.

By Roxana Hadadi

At this point, the Holy Grail of films about teenagers with cancer is last year’s mega-hit “The Fault In Our Stars,” which managed to create well-rounded characters and a believable romance within its tragic limits. Thematically, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is undeniably similar – two teenage boys befriend a female classmate with cancer – but it overdoes the quirky, hipster traits too much, diluting the film’s original purpose.

Everyone in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has something off-kilter about them: The main character, Greg (Thomas Mann, of “Beautiful Creatures”) is obsessed with cinema but unable to make any friends; his closest ally at school, Earl (RJ Cyler), is similarly into weird things but is more socially adept; the dying girl Rachel (Olivia Cooke, of “Ouija”), is into scissors and pink wigs; Greg’s father, a tenured sociology professor who just sits around all day, eats weird things like cuttlefish and pigs’ feet; their high school’s history teacher is covered in tattoos and eats Vietnamese soup, pho, in his office.

These are collections of traits, not real characters, and it’s difficult to really care about any of them as the film progresses. It’s the biggest barrier for immersion into the Pittsburgh of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which will pull on your heartstrings regardless because of the cancer plot but doesn’t resonate as much as it should otherwise.

The gist is this: High school senior Greg has spent his years carefully avoiding every clique at school, instead kind of befriending everyone as a way to stay invisible. His self-loathing is out of control, so much so that he can’t even call his best friend Earl his best friend; instead, he refers to him as a co-worker, because the two make their own weird remakes of classic movies together. The films are a secret and nobody really gets Greg and Earl because they so actively avoid other people, but that changes when Greg’s mother learns that one of his schoolmates, Rachel, has leukemia.

Greg and Rachel aren’t friends – he’s written her off as part of the “boring Jewish senior girls” group at school – but his mother is forcing them to hang out and Rachel doesn’t want to be a source of pity, so they agree to spend time together once and then call it good. But, as a helpful title card tells audiences, “Day 1 of Doomed Friendship” led to a lot more days, and a close bond between the two.

As Rachel gets more sick, though, Greg’s entire life becomes affected, from his friendship with Earl to his schoolwork to his carefully cultivated personality of nonchalance. His parents are worried about where he’s going to go to college, but Greg’s focus is on Rachel getting better – and in his reality, the fact that she might not is earth-shattering.

Although “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” struggles in making its characters well-rounded (until the last 10 or so minutes of the film, which are fantastic, thoughtful, and memorable) because they’re just so quirky, the questions it raises about being sick and caring for someone who is are valid: What do you say? What do you do? How do you live your own life in light of the other person’s illness? What is fair for you to do? What is fair for you to feel? For parents watching with teens, those are the questions to discuss after “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – these are weighty things, and they deserve conversation.

Yes, it’s problematic how the focus of the film toward the end seems to shift from Rachel’s pain to how hard it was for Greg to see her in pain, and the film sometimes prioritizes his feelings over hers. But “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” still tells a touching story, in its own way, and below all the hipster mannerisms, there’s an intentional film saying real things about life, love, and death. It’s not immediately obvious, but it’s there, and it’s as deeply felt as anything in “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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