How does a self-conscious loner survive high school? For an affable-but-aloof senior named Greg, the answer is to become something of an everyman. That means carefully cultivating acquaintances in each of his Pittsburgh high school’s “nations,” as he dubs them: “Jock Nation,” “Kingdom of Stoners,” “People’s Republic of Theater Dorks” and “Boring Jewish Senior Girls Subgroup 2A,” among many others. In other words, Greg lurks quite intentionally at the periphery of everything, familiar to everyone, known by no one.
Well, almost no one.
There is Earl. Greg’s known his friend from the mean streets across the tracks since they were in kindergarten. But Greg can’t quite commit to that term, friend. Instead, Greg tells us in the opening moments of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that he prefers to think of Earl as his “co-worker,” a term he’s appropriated to describe their longstanding partnership making animated, Super 8 parodies of classic movies (with titles like A Sockwork Orange and My Dinner With Andre the Giant).
Greg’s plot to drift anonymously through his senior year (and maybe even his whole life) gets tossed into a tizzy the day his mother tells him a fellow classmate—whom Greg knows but doesn’t really know—named Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mom says Rachel’s mother, Denise, “feels you might be someone who could make her feel better.”
Greg’s hardly convinced. But to placate his well-meaning-but-obviously-manipulative mom, he goes to visit Rachel at her house.
It’s hardly love at first sight. This is not that kind of movie. In fact, it’s not even friendship at first sight. But as Greg keeps coming back to visit the increasingly sick classmate, a kindred connection is born, and an unlikely, yes, friendship begins to grow.
Though the central conflict here is ostensibly Rachel’s encroaching cancer, the narrative really centers on how her tragic illness forces Greg to come to grips with his own selfishness. As time passes, Greg and Rachel develop a deep friendship, whether Greg will call it that or not. And, as he notes repeatedly, it’s a platonic one, too.
That’s a rare thing onscreen these days in coming of age tales.
Yet Greg and Rachel do come of age as they’re both forced to deal with the reality that her cancer is terminal. At one point, Greg is furious with her because she’s ceased the medical treatment she feels is accomplishing little. “I’m the one who has to suffer through this,” Rachel says. “So don’t yell at me.” Likewise, Earl confronts his friend’s selfishness when Greg begins to act like a martyr of sorts because of Rachel’s impending death. Slowly, Greg begins to realize how narcissistically he’s responded to Rachel’s terminal illness.
As for Rachel, we watch her progress through the life-draining trauma of the disease. She says at one point, “The hardest part is my mom trying to deal with it all.” Later, though, it gets much harder for her, too. After her hair falls out, Rachel tells Greg, “I thought it would be easier looking like this. And it’s just not. … People are clearly repulsed. … I’m so ugly, Greg.”
Still, she doggedly tries to help Greg overcome his deep insecurities. She tells him, “You irrationally hate yourself,” and tries to help him move toward self-acceptance. Despite his own self-centeredness, Greg still offers a huge chunk of his senior year of high school to try to cheer Rachel up. He spends time with her, cracks jokes (albeit frequently inappropriate ones) and generally does everything he knows how to do to make her smile. When it becomes clear that she is in fact going to die, the news devastates Greg, who really doesn’t know what to do with the loss of someone he’s come to care for so deeply.
Greg and Earl share a deep bond as well. They make (ridiculous) movies together, as I said. And as Rachel’s condition deteriorates dangerously with each passing week, the two boys eventually decide to offer the only kind of tribute to her they know how to create: a short movie celebrating the teen girl’s brief but beautiful life.
A teacher proves to be quite encouraging through this process. And he introduces the idea of celebrating the dignity and beauty of life by continuing to learn new things about someone even after they’re gone.
A friend says, “I just want you to remember that your cancer is all part of God’s plan.” Someone describes life as “a living hell.” A student with a penchant for black wears a pentagram on a necklace. Greg sarcastically quips, “High school is the mouth of a great demon.”
We see Greg rapidly closing multiple windows on his computer showing scantily clad women when his parents unexpectedly walk in on him. Greg’s crush, a girl named Madison, wears formfitting tops. Earl and his older brother repeatedly talk about high school girls’ “t-tties.”
Earl initially suggests that Greg should pursue a sexual relationship with Rachel, saying he might be “her last chance on earth to be with a man.” Greg chivalrously rejects that notion. Denise flirts inappropriately with Greg, giving him a long hug at one point and calling him a “delicious young boy.” And there’s a sideways gag about sexually assaulting a baby. Greg jokes twice about masturbating. We hear about STDs, “getting some,” making out and tampons.
Some of the films Greg and Earl have spoofed are explicit, R-rated ones, such as Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy.
There are two brief fistfights involving a punch to the stomach and, later, some more serious pummeling. Elsewhere, Greg fakes having a seizure and dying. Claymation interludes show a guy tied up and about to be tortured; also a moose repeatedly stepping on a rodent.
One fully spoken f-word and three censored ones. There are nearly 20 s-words. God’s name is abused about 15 times (including at least four pairings with “d–n.” Jesus name is misused four or five times. Variants of “a–” are used more than 20 times, “h—” a dozen times. Other vulgarities include “p—,” “b–ch,” etc. Anatomical crudities include about 10 uses of “d–k,” three or four of “t-tties,” one each of “boner” and “butthole.”
Denise almost always has a glass of wine in her hand, and she’s usually tipsy from the stuff. She offers to share with Greg and Earl wine late in the film, saying she thinks they’re old enough to have a drink. Earl accepts; Greg declines initially, then takes her up on the offer. One of Greg and Earl’s movies is called Brew Velvet. Passing reference is made to someone’s dad singing to German girls in bars.
Greg and Earl inadvertently end up very stoned, and they blame their incapacitated condition on a teacher’s soup (which they had at lunch). Greg has hallucinations, seeing giant stuffed animals. They later realize their high came from eating some marijuana-laced cookies. Drug dealing is clearly being done at school, and stoners in the bathroom are shown smoking. Greg and Earl jokingly recall getting a contact high after being in an elevator with someone who was toking.
We see a close-up of a dog’s sexual anatomy.
If ’80s teen-feature maestro John Hughes would have ever teamed up with today’s eccentric moviemaker Wes Anderson, I suspect the outcome would be something like what we get in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
This quirky, poignant, award-winning movie took Sundance by storm in 2015, much the same way Napoleon Dynamite did back in 2004. Indeed, while it’s got more content to grapple with than Napoleon does, it’s got a similar kind of core sweetness to it.
As I mentioned, unlike the vast majority of teen-themed movies, this one isn’t a romance. It’s about friendship. It’s about the struggle to grow up. It’s about dealing with the self-absorption that is so interwoven into the youthful experience.
And it’s about sifting through the awful reality of premature death.
All of that makes for a compelling story—told in a way that we haven’t seen a dozen times already as we’re invited into an intimate (but not sexual) friendship demonstrating the beauty and dignity of life.
In a roundtable discussion that Plugged In participated in, star Thomas Mann (Greg), noted that the film focuses on “making the most of your relationships.” I think he’s right. This is the kind of story that could open up meaningful conversations with teens about significant themes such as friendship and death, finding meaning and purpose in life and setting aside our tendency at times to focus on ourselves instead of focusing on others who are struggling much more deeply than we are.
Completely incompatible with such a positive teachable moment, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also drags out of its pockets (like so many greasy and gross tater tots) handfuls of bad ideas, dirty jokes and harsh profanity. Just the kind of unnecessary content that might lead Napoleon Dynamite to let out an exasperated “Gosh!”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.