“Movies” are “moving pictures,” and “films” are, technically, the same thing. But there has long been a semantic debate among film snobs (a.k.a. “cineastes”), arguing that a “movie” is flatly a piece of entertainment, appealing only to base satisfactions of laughter, thrills, and melodrama, whereas a film is an artful piece with thematic depth and formal designs worthy of study. Such a distinction has blurred considerably as film criticism has looked deeper at, say, the classic comedies of Howard Hawks and the classic thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. Even if we grant the distinction exists, we may have trouble applying it to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Certainly this dramedy—adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own YA novel and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story, Glee)—wants very much to be a film, just as its main character not so secretly desires to be a filmmaker. The “Me” of the title, high-school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, adorkable), haunts Pittsburgh’s best (or only?) indie video store; spends his lunch hours in the office of his beloved history teacher (Jon Bernthal), watching Criterion Collection titles (and listening to their director’s commentaries) on YouTube; and makes amateur film parodies with his longtime friend Earl (RJ Cyler, amusingly deadpan). For all this, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl makes for a disappointing “film” but, at least for its target audience of white middle-class teens (and probably their parents), a deeply satisfying "movie."
Or should I say “moving picture”? For self-consciously manipulative melodrama is the movie’s not-so-stealth current, pulling the story along under its goofy, dancing-as-fast-as-it-can humor as, gradually, the sea rises. This movie about Greg is, then, a perfect metaphor for him: seeing himself as a “skinny, pasty, groundhog-faced kid,” he has dedicated himself to being socially noncommittal, surviving his environment by making shallow connections with all, deep connections with none. Even Earl he calls a “co-worker.” But then Greg finds himself forced, by a mother (Connie Britton) he calls “the LeBron James of nagging,” to hang out with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke of TV’s Bates Motel), a witty girl whose spirit has been understandably dimmed by a recent diagnosis of acute myelogenous leukemia.
And so Greg’s character arc is to go from “movie” (and movie-maker, of silly parodies like “Senior Citizen Cane” and “A Sockwork Orange”) to “film” (and filmmaker), his struggles being to befriend Rachel despite his inclinations and, inextricably, to deal with the inevitability of mortality and make a very personal, entirely worthy film for her. The film’s best moments—especially a well-staged, well-played emotional showdown between Mann and Cooke—explore how true friendship involves people challenging each other and, artistic creativity not necessarily aside, the emotional creativity necessitated by chips-are-down strife. When life itself is threatened, what do you say to a friend? What do you do?
For much of its length, though, Andrews’ script forces Gomez-Rejon to indulge Greg’s pointed narcissism by curating a funny-sad fantasy that feels like the twee-est of Wes Anderson montages, wide-angle lenses, whip-pans, pop-culture pastiches and all. It’s near-impossible to ignore that the film’s only African-American characters (Earl and a limo-driver) serve as jive-talking comic relief with a dash of spiritual advisor. Though all we learn about Earl’s working-class life is what directly affects or interests his solipsistic white friend, at least the plot requires that he show an emotional intelligence developmentally superior to that of Greg. As for Rachel, and despite Cooke's superb performance, the plot requires her to be little more than a device as per the title, a foil for Greg’s doled-out discoveries.
Certainly, the proliferation of real-life Gregs will love Gomez-Rejon’s movie like their own. Everyone else will have to accept its indulgence of Greg’s journey to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else in order to enjoy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for what it is: a diverting, skillfully shot and edited comedy with an ultimate kick of near-unbearable near-death tension. Greg’s cinematic/personal growth includes an embrace of the abstract: acknowledging the lie of perfection and embracing the beautiful, troubling imperfect of finite existence. That may not qualify this moving picture for the Criterion Collection, but it does suggest this movie might be a film after all.