The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is going through quite the evolution this summer. First there was Paper Towns, in which a boy is ushered into the realization that MPDGs are people too, though it’s an MPDG who does the ushering, and whose story we are explicitly informed is not going to be shared with us; she can go be an authentic human being in some other movie, thank you very much. And now we have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which the MPDG becomes a Manic Pixie Cancer Girl who will help a “self-hating” teenaged boy come to the tender awareness that he’s smart enough, he’s good enough, and gosh darn it, people like him.
Our first hint that the girl dying of cancer — leukemia, to be precise — is not to be the focus of the tale comes right in the title: she doesn’t even get a name. Greg (Thomas Mann: Barely Lethal, Welcome to Me) is the “me” (clearly the center of attention) and the “Earl” is Greg’s “coworker” — Greg is afraid of friendship and won’t call anyone “friend” — Earl (RJ Cyler), and it’s only later that we discover that the “dying girl” is Rachel (Olivia Cooke: The Quiet Ones). Greg is forced by his mother (Connie Britton: American Ultra, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas) to be nice to Rachel, who has just gotten her diagnosis as the movie opens. We never understand why Mom would do such a thing; surely she knows that Rachel will see how insincere this is. Which she does, and Greg has to ask her to take pity on him and let him hang out with her so that he doesn’t get in trouble with his mother. Which Rachel does. This is an apt metaphor for her treatment by the film: Rachel is cornered into helping someone else. If only this were a metaphor for how people who are coping with something terrible — their own illness, for instance, or the death of a loved one — often end up comforting others who don’t know how to behave around them. But it isn’t, because this story is not about Rachel. She may well be dying, but never mind: Greg’s self-esteem needs a little work, and that’s far more important. And of course, Greg ends up a much better person in the end, his life back on track, because of his relationship with Rachel.
What does the relationship do for Rachel? Who knows. The movie — based on a novel by Jesse Andrews, and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown) — wants to make it perfectly plain that Rachel doesn’t matter except in how her suffering can make Greg a better person. And lest there be any misunderstanding about this, that you are not to worry about her at all, Greg informs us — via voiceover — that Rachel doesn’t die, she’s going to be fine, so there’s no need to be concerned about her. There is to be no wasting time in suspense over her fate. At all. Just keeping worrying about Greg, and whether he is shaping up into a reasonable facsimile of a human being, and if this would even be possible if not for the glorious gift he gets of knowing someone who has cancer. Cancer! It’s a confidence booster!
At one point, Earl has to remind Greg that Rachel’s cancer is not all about Greg. Someone might have told the movie that, but no one does, and the movie carries blithely on being all about Greg.
The repugnant narcissism of this gets worse. Greg is a bit of budding filmmaker; he calls Earl his “coworker” because together they make silly remakes of great films, kind of like how Jack Black and Mos Def “sweded” films in Be Kind Rewind, except even more aggressively quirky and with much less charm (like, almost none). These movies are terrible, Greg repeats over and over again. And they are. But when someone gives Greg the idea to make a film for Rachel, well, the die is cast. Can Greg finally become a real artist and make a film with real meaning?
Oh, but of course he can. Because his Manic Pixie Cancer Girl is there to inspire him. Don’t do anything, sweetie: just lie there and look sick.