Me and Earl and the Dying Girl movie review: sick of it

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl red light

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl gets sick, but she can still inspire a man to better himself, while also adding a dash of repugnant narcissism to the subgenre.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for its representation of girls and women.

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Hank Graham
Hank Graham
Fri, Sep 04, 2015 9:42pm

You know, there’s a really savage satire waiting for someone to write out there on this, MaryAnn. Just sayin’.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Hank Graham
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 11:07am

There’s lots of things I’d like to write…

amanohyo
amanohyo
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 5:16pm

This script pulls the classic Family Guy-ish, “sure it’s stupid but I knew it was stupid when I wrote it, and I’m telling the audience how stupid it is, so that makes it clever, sarcastic, and edgy!” The acting by Cooke and Cyler is pretty good though, and I am a sucker for manufactured feels, so I despite my intense hatred of the plot, I teared up a lot at the end.

As bad as it is, I still enjoyed it more than The Fault in Our Stars, which had a main character so annoyingly cheerful that I stopped watching a half hour in. The filmmakers clearly believe that they’ve created some kind of realistic, grounded foil to films like TFIOS, but MEatDY is really just a self-satisfied, self-referential example of the same beast. Admittedly, the camera work is nice in spots, especially the shot from underneath the fire escape, and the long shot of the squirrels.

If this movie centered on Rachel’s perspective and was less cutesy and insincere, it could have easily been the biting, gritty, genuinely quirky counterpoint to schmaltzy young adult tripe that it wants to be, but it didn’t stray from the formula nearly enough. As you point out in your review, it’s an example of precisely how not to treat a female character. The fact that Rachel has no romantic relationships (for a moment I thought she and Earl would hit it off romantically which would have been an interesting twist, but nope, that would be slightly edgy and we can’t have that) is seen by the filmmakers as a reversal of standard tropes, but it actually makes the movie even less realistic. In fact, despite the fact that she is the narrative center of the entire plot, we know virtually nothing about Rachel until…well, I won’t spoil the best/worst part of the movie.

Very disappointing. If you want to wash the lazy trope taste out of your mouth quickly, I recommend Grandma if you haven’t seen it already. It’s not a great movie or anything, just a simple, well-executed character portrait of three generations of women, and Tomlin nails every single scene.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 11:52am

I’d love to see *Grandma,* but I have no access to it here. It doesn’t open in the UK till December.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 2:46pm

Oops, I should have looked the date up before mentioning it. It’s a good example of a female cast breathing new life into a plot that would have felt tired and formulaic if it was yet another film centered on father/son relationships. I’ll look forward to your review in December.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Tue, Sep 08, 2015 12:13pm

No reason why you should be up on UK release dates!

Actually, I just learned that *Grandma* will be at the London Film Festival, so I should be able to see it in October.

Eva Bowering
Eva Bowering
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Oct 18, 2015 6:54am

“Fault” was such a better movie. I can’t get over the amount of people saying how “Me” is better. “Fault” actually makes the female character..well a character.Plus, Dern as her Mom and Defoe make for an infintely better cast choice as adults in their lives. I can’t stand seeing Nic Offerman miscast into these one dimensional Dad roles anymore. He has range people, so let him act.And I’m a 30 y/o grown adult woman, not even the target demographic for either of these films. Although “Fault” is highly cliched, it doesn’t rehash the problematic “Garden State” mentality of nearly a decade ago. I also couldn’t help but feel like the Earl character was the token black guy. This movie feels like it should have been made years ago. It lacks any kind of progress in film making and fills it with an infinite amount of references. At least “Fault” was being fairly true to itself as a film. It didn’t push boundaries, it was simple and effective IMO.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Eva Bowering
Sun, Oct 18, 2015 12:38pm

I can’t get over the amount of people saying how “Me” is better.

Who’s saying that? Is it mostly guys? Cuz I suspect that when there’s an uproar over movies that don’t focus exclusively on boys and men, it’s because those boys and men are unable to empathize with female characters in the same way that we girls and women have had to be empathizing with male characters since forever.

Eva Bowering
Eva Bowering
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Oct 18, 2015 7:17pm

I read a couple side by side comparisons including Slate Magazine that weighed the pros & cons. Though the reviews have pretty much remained equal it blew my mind that Me is being considered slightly better.

Eva Bowering
Eva Bowering
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Oct 18, 2015 7:17pm

Also thank you for your review! :)

Thera Pitts
Thera Pitts
reply to  Eva Bowering
Fri, Oct 23, 2015 5:10pm

Fault was leaps and bounds better, although I haven’t seen the movie version of Me and Earl, I read both books and saw the movie version of Fault in our Stars. And I think the reason they probably saw Me and Earl as the superior effort (aside from MaryAnn’s assumption which likely has some truth to it) was because it wasn’t a love story, which is the most goddamned stupid reason in the world, but there ya go.

Thera Pitts
Thera Pitts
reply to  Thera Pitts
Fri, Oct 23, 2015 5:19pm

Not to say I didn’t have my issues with Fault as well, the teen characters were too clever by half, and seemed to have pretty crappy opinions of the adults in their lives (the narrator makes a comment about her super nice parents toward the end that made me kind of cringe) but it was actually worked on an emotional level in a way Me and Earl fell miserably short. And it did this without the kind of mindless Schmaltz Me and Earl tried so hard to rebel against. Me and Earl went so far in the other direction I ended up not caring at all.

Fredereqie
Fredereqie
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 6:47pm

Just because a movie isn’t about a fucking woman doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s called Me and Earl, not The Dying girl and Me. Clearly the movie isn’t about Rachel, so why the hell would you want to prioritize her in your review? Instead of citing scenes in which Earl benefits from Rachel’s existence, stress more on the film’s content, and not a specific character you want to like. You should review movies as a whole, and not just filter the film through your feminist fish-gills to try and sound provocative, you clucking hen!

Jurgan
Jurgan
reply to  Fredereqie
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 7:43pm

“Clucking hen?” Well, there’s a new one for the “gendered abuse” thread.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jurgan
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 11:52am

It sure is.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  Fredereqie
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 8:25pm

A clucking hen with fish gills… I’ll admit that made me chuckle. I guess you fancy yourself a crowing rooster with nictitating membranes? (See that comparison works because while attacking MA, you blinded yourself to the content of the review – it’s actually pretty clever, but by telling you how clever it is right now, I’ve actually made it not very clever at all and kind of annoying, just like this movie does when it breaks the fourth wall and states the romantic tropes it is going to avoid, and then proceeds to blunder right into tropes that are just as bad if not worse.)

What you may not understand as a newcomer(?) to the site is that MA reviews all movies in a cultural context. In that sense, she is actually reviewing the movie “as a whole” in a more comprehensive way than you would like her to. I think your edict was meant to be something like: “You should review movies in a cultural vacuum, as if your life experiences and mine were identical,” which is clearly impossible.

There are already precisely a bajillion movies about self-centered, awkward losers who discover the way to a more manly, confident, fulfilling existence by finding inspiration in a far more interesting member of the opposite sex. In 99% of these movies, the loser is male and is the center of the story, while the muse is female, barely sketched, and viewed from an external perspective. Even more troubling than this trope are the bajillion films in which a male protagonist is motivated to action by the suffering, sickness, and/or death of a superficially interesting, beautiful, chaste, virtuous female character that the audience knows almost nothing about.

This movie combines both of these tropes and also has the balls to believe that it is subverting them in a clever way. If anything, the end of the movie, which I won’t spoil, makes it painfully obvious how much more interesting and refreshingly novel the movie would have been if it was about “the dying girl.” Even Earl gets shortchanged when it comes to character development, but he’s freakin’ Raskolnikov compared to what we learn about Rachel (including the final reveal). MA’s not asking for a lot, just that filmmakers treat female characters like human beings instead of convenient props along the path of the male main character’s journey. Is that really too much to ask? What specifically did you enjoy about the movie?

P.S. If you’d like to make fun of me, I humbly request to be called a White Knight with feminazi feathers on my albatross wings. Albatrosses are way cooler than chickens.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 11:54am

Re the final reveal…

** SPOILER **

Even from beyond the fucking grave, Rachel is supporting Greg and making him feel better about himself.

I really wanted to throw something at the screen at that point.

RogerBW
RogerBW
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 12:52pm

At least she managed to escape from the story before the end.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 5:10pm

I know what you mean – the final minutes are just one slap in the face after another. “Look how interesting this character we didn’t give a shit about in the script could have been! Sure, we killed her off to drive the character arc of our dull, mopey, self-centered, over-sensitive hero (I really wish authors like Andrews would stop inserting themselves into their stories), but guess what? We can still wring a few more drops of pixie juice from her corpse with a manipulative letter extolling how talented and self-sacrificing this unique, noble lad truly was.”

When Earl yells at Greg, “No one gives a shit about you!” I wanted to high five him, and yell, “Damn straight! How about we spend some time with Earl and Rachel?!” The movie is well made technically, but stubbornly refuses to budge its attention or sympathies from the least interesting, least important character, then goes so far as to acknowledge what a douchey movie this is, and then pulls a couple even douchier moves as if all is forgiven. I’ve read some of the book (also by Andrews) and had to stop because it’s just as if not more frustrating. As Hank Graham said, it’s enough to make me want to hate-write a satirical send up of the whole thing. If I had the time, I would.

RogerBW
RogerBW
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 5:18pm

Well, at least they’re not wasting the pixie juice in the corpse. That stuff’s getting rarer. It’ll be pixie fracking next.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  amanohyo
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 2:53pm

Umm, I was grumpy so I may have forgotten to say:

SPOILER ALERT

I apologize if I’ve ruined the end of this awful movie for you. Although I really think if you pay atten… nope not gonna make excuses. I apologize. Please feel free to edit/delete my comments. It won’t happen again.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Tue, Sep 08, 2015 12:14pm

I added a spoiler warning to your comment. I should have done that immediately.

Jurgan
Jurgan
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 3:13am

I thought you said the voiceover promised she wouldn’t die? Did the VO lie to us?

RogerBW
RogerBW
reply to  Jurgan
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 7:12am

There’s a plot summary on Wikipedia, and a longer one on themoviespoiler.com.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jurgan
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 9:47am

Yes. Which only underscores how much the movie is not about her.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 4:04pm

OH FFS! Is that why so many critics are falling over themselves about how “unsentimental” this movies is? Because the insipid little b!#@h* has the decency to die, thereby assuring the “authenticity” of the boy’s emotional experience?

Man, fuck this movie.

* I may be paraphrasing here, but I think I’m getting the message.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Tue, Sep 08, 2015 12:15pm

thereby assuring the “authenticity” of the boy’s emotional experience

That’s an excellent way to describe it.

David C-D
David C-D
reply to  amanohyo
Mon, Sep 07, 2015 3:43pm

I just want to share my appreciation for this very pleasing, well-thought-out response to the (apparently) trollish commentor. It is especially nice when something ugly becomes the occasion for something beautiful.

Also, “wring a few more drops of pixie juice from her corpse” :)

bronxbee
reply to  Fredereqie
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 2:05am

<>

unlessroundisfunny
unlessroundisfunny
reply to  Fredereqie
Mon, Jul 31, 2017 4:06pm

Well, I agree with your sentiment, but not your misogyny. I do think that MaryAnn’s review was unfairly harsh, and was the product of too much navel-gazing. Not every film has to have fleshed out female characters. Sometimes, movies about boys are good too!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  unlessroundisfunny
Mon, Jul 31, 2017 5:26pm

Not every film has to have fleshed out female characters.

This is true. But it’s funny how *so many damn movies* don’t, isn’t it?

unlessroundisfunny
unlessroundisfunny
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jul 31, 2017 6:30pm

I don’t know if that’s true anymore, but I tend toward movies about women, so maybe I am not seeing the big picture. That said, I loved this movie! Hit me right in the feels, and I empathized with the main character’s inability to create anything meaningful when the world needed it the most. I also loved the surrealist tone of the film, and the playful color scheme. Everything just clicked for me.

I remember that many reviewers jumped all over The Spectacular Now because an exceedingly competent girl was given the short shrift by the story in favor of an alcoholic male loser. And my response to those critiques is that he movie is about the alcoholic male loser, and not about the character the reviewers want it to be about. I think the same applies here, at least a little. :).

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  unlessroundisfunny
Mon, Jul 31, 2017 9:40pm

But when there are so many movies about male losers, the character turns into a cliche, for some of us. If you disagree, there are reviewers out there who agree with you, just not on this site.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  unlessroundisfunny
Mon, Jul 31, 2017 10:09pm

If a story isn’t focused on its most interesting character, I think that’s a flaw that can legitimately be criticized.

I don’t know if MaryAnn necessarily wants the movie to make Rachel the main character, but she at least wants the movie to recognize Rachel as a full human being, not just a prop for Greg’s self-actualization. (And the fact that she’s possibly dying of cancer makes his own issues seem ridiculously trivial in comparison.)

A movie doesn’t just exist in a vacuum; it also reinforces – or challenges – the patterns set up by all the movies before it, as well as the cultural attitudes that inform those patterns. It’s fair to criticize a movie for relegating women with potentially more compelling story arcs to supporting roles for male losers if, as Danielm80 points out, it’s a cliche that’s been done a thousand times already.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  unlessroundisfunny
Tue, Aug 01, 2017 10:39am

I don’t know if that’s true anymore

As the movie expert, I can assure you that it most definitely is still true.

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Aug 01, 2017 12:00pm

I just saw this GIF set. It’s Siskel and Ebert, filmed in 1980, complaining about a different sexist cliché:

http://rainbowrowell.tumblr.com/post/163644959906/dbvictoria-with-all-the-heat-anita-sarkeesian

That cliché is still around (as noted in the link), and we also have the cliché of films that focus on male losers and keep women in the background.

Male losers appreciate the attention and buy lots of movie tickets. As a male geek, I can see that sort of film as a corrective to the many years when we never got to be the hero (outside of Marvel comics). But now we’re just another trope, and somehow, the sexist tropes never got corrected. (We definitely need more female geeks.)

If you see only one movie a year, and it’s Wonder Woman or Frozen, you can say, “This film is fantastic, so what’s the problem?” But if you see lots of movies, the clichés become really obvious.

I’ll post this link for anyone who doesn’t think there’s a problem:

https://www.flickfilosopher.com/2016/05/where-are-the-women-wrapup-essay-in-two-alt-weekly-newspapers.html

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Aug 01, 2017 1:46pm

Male losers appreciate the attention and buy lots of movie tickets.

But not as much as women:

http://www.indiewire.com/2014/03/mpaa-data-shows-that-women-are-still-the-majority-of-moviegoers-207223/

As a male geek, I can see that sort of film as a corrective

I see what you’re saying but I’d be careful not to equate “geek” with “loser.” That’s buying into the larger cultural bullshit. Passion for geeky stuff and social ineptitude are two separate things.

I would also argue that movies about socially awkward boys/men have been around for a long time, in lots of different genres, not least Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre.

RogerBW
RogerBW
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 9:45pm

Find a dying girl of your own at carcinomabuddy.com!

…oh, c’mon, you know someone’s going to do it.

cinderkeys
cinderkeys
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 9:47am

Inspiration Porn: The Movie.

Thera Pitts
Thera Pitts
Fri, Oct 23, 2015 5:03pm

Haven’t seen this, but I have read the book. I didn’t much care for it, in fact I spent six hours reading the thing and my final reaction was “what the hell was the point?”. As well-written as it was, the main character just irked the shit out of me, and yeah, I get that he was supposed to be kind of unpleasant so I could watch him become a better person through it all, but I didn’t understand why I was supposed to care about him finding himself in the first place when everyone else in the story were A) much better people B) leaps and bounds more interesting and C) had far worse problems than he did. Also the whole thing was so goddamned self-congratulatory, Yeah, I get it, it’s a story about cancer that eschews sentimentality. Honestly, it could have used some.

Nino
Nino
Thu, Nov 05, 2015 11:59pm

I personally LOVED the movie; I also have to say I HATE Pixie girls in movies ever since ‘500 Days of Summer’ ’cause I don’t like to be bound only to the main character’s ideas, ideals, way of acting and feelings, but I thought of Rachel as a pixie as something real, direct and raw. No sugarcoatedness when it came to Greg’s selfishness. I mean the title pretty much says it all in a silver platter ‘ME and Earl and…the dying girl (Rachel, she has cancer, she’s dying,that’s it)

Not many people these days care to meet a person on a deep level and I think that was the point of this movie it’s meant to show you that ugly side of people, it shows you the reality of interactions for the mere purpose of leeching something beneficial out of them.

In the end, it teaches a beutiful lesson: care for people, look deeper, pay attention to them, worry about them, all those goood stuff that make a friedship something unforgettable. Make life worth living,don’t make yourself a waste of space and time.
I pain for Rachel and I’m so sad we couldn’t see her side of the story or how she felt (outside of Greg’s point of view) ’cause I think it would have made a much bigger contrast in the whole freindship theme of the movie but it wasn’t the case this time.

Me craving to know the real Rachel is the thing I cherrish the most about this film. Greg might be fine, Earl might be too, everyone might be living a fantastic life, but I still wonder about Rachel, I wonder about her struggle, the painful desicions, the pain, the sadness, the moment right before the end; I keep on wondering how she felt when she went trhough all of that and that’s the best feeling I got from the movie, ’cause after the movie ended I could only think of one thing and that was Rachel.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Nino
Fri, Nov 06, 2015 10:03am

Then you understand the problem with the movie *perfectly.*

I mean the title pretty much says it all in a silver platter ‘ME and Earl and…the dying girl

I don’t understand all the people quoting the title of this film as if that excuses it. Would a movie called *Misogynist Teen Sex Comedy* be excused if it lived up to its title?

but it wasn’t the case this time.

It never is “the case” with these sorts of movies, is it?

Howard Schumann
Howard Schumann
reply to  Nino
Sun, Dec 06, 2015 5:02am

Very touched by your deeply felt comment. Like you, I thought it was a wonderful film and one of the best of the year. As one reviewer expressed it, “a sincerely great, honest film that will make you laugh and touch your soul.”

FelixTheFrenchCat
FelixTheFrenchCat
Fri, Jul 29, 2016 11:57am

I liked this movie.

bronxbee
reply to  FelixTheFrenchCat
Fri, Jul 29, 2016 6:47pm

and…. so?