Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead.
The first time I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was on a 16 hour flight from India to America. Everyone else on the plane was sleeping, so I clicked on a movie that looked like a rip–off of The Fault in Our Stars.
Two hours later, in a dark, cramped seat thousands of miles above ground, tears were rolling down my face as I tried to console myself.
Even though it’s been years, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has remained my favorite film, and the memory of watching it is one of my most vivid and cherished.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) as he befriends his classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg tells the story of the movie in an essay to Pittsburgh State University. Though his mother initially forces him to spend time with Rachel, they end up striking up a genuine friendship, and Greg spends the entire school year trying to make a movie for Rachel before she dies. Even among the pantheon of movies about teens with terminal illnesses, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is truly a diamond among pebbles.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels so real to the teenage experience—with the awkwardness, pain, and insecurity that characterizes adolescence. Greg tries to ingratiate himself with every clique in school because he feels that if he shows his true self, no one will genuinely accept him. He doesn’t call anyone his friend, not even the titular Earl (RJ Cyler), who he has known since kindergarten and who ultimately pushes Greg to be more considerate. Greg is painfully awkward. Embarrassed by everything he loves, he comes across as a weirdo. However, though he’s a "Quirky Teen," his characterization doesn’t read as contrived or artificial. Greg’s aloofness and self–hatred make him self–centered in a way that feels so organic to teenagers, and it's something he must learn to leave behind.
This film is beloved to me because it's, above all, about friendship. Greg and Rachel could have easily followed the high school romance trope, and the movie is aware of the line it’s toeing. Greg comments, in voiceover, that if the film was a love story, he and Rachel would be making out way more.
It’s so critical and wonderful to have media that prioritizes friendship. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl deals with how difficult it can be to make friends, and how important empathy and selflessness are for deep, lasting friendships. It also truly portrays the devastation of losing a friend. Greg and Rachel are friends who are weird together, who make each other laugh, and who create art for each other. In one tender scene at the hospital, Greg checks Rachel’s pulse after she falls asleep before gently tucking her in.
When Rachel decides to stop her treatment, she and Greg fight, but Greg’s voice breaks as he realizes he will lose her. Though he never says it, the film makes it clear Greg loves Rachel. Her impending death crushes and depresses him. The love portrayed in the movie isn’t flashy or in–your–face. A lot of the time, characters just sit together shooting shit or quietly watching films. The plot meanders forward with an air of whimsy, though Rachel’s terminal illness always lurks in the background.
Interestingly, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also a movie about filmmaking. Greg and Earl make spoofs of classic foreign films together, and these films are ultimately what help Rachel through so much of her treatment and suffering. The conflict of the movie is Greg’s struggle to make an adequate film for Rachel before she dies. The movie is interspersed with stop motion sequences and clips of Greg and Earl’s mini films.
The ending tries its best to encompass the gravity of Rachel’s passing. Rachel suffers; she doesn’t achieve some kind of wisdom or understanding about the mechanisms of life and death. She's just quiet and unhappy.
The movie Greg has spent so long creating for Rachel is clips of laughter and love, an abstract celebration of the senses. It doesn’t make sense or have a narrative, because how could it? What sensible movie could you make for someone who is dying so unfairly, so young? Greg watches Rachel watch the movie, and as her health deteriorates, she watches him cry against the projection of the film on the wall of her hospital room. It's a movie within a movie about watching and bearing witness to oneself and others.
The ending isn’t just about death. It's about how to hold on to a beloved someone after they're gone. Greg goes through Rachel’s room at her shiva, finding memories of her life and the art she has created for him, learning about her after she is gone.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a love letter to movies—as classic, stupid, and poignant as they have the potential to be—and to the awkwardness of adolescence and the depth of love between friends. It's more relevant than ever as a source of comfort and grief, and above all, hope.