The Death of Innocence in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

High school is easily the most tumultuous time in a person’s life. Between the flare-up of sexual desire and the pressure to attend a “good college,” the anxiety of teenage existence is challenging enough without throwing death into the equation. But alas, such is the simultaneous misfortune and blessing of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The dying girl in question is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow classmate of Greg’s who lives near his house.

After she is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) “forces” him to hang out with her so that she has as much companionship as possible. Greg, who prides himself on only cultivating the most cursory of relationships, is extremely hesitant about obeying his mother’s commands.

And then, when he does show up to Rachel’s house, she urges him to leave as she does not want his pity–and this after he endured her sentry of a mom, Denise (Molly Shannon). Nonetheless, Greg cajoles her into letting him stay so that he can, as he tells her, inform his mother that he’s fulfilled her request.

Soon, title cards are ticking off “Day ___ of Doomed Friendship,” leading the audience to believe that it could be doomed either because of Rachel’s impending death or because of an imminent fallout between her and Greg. And yet, the two only seem to grow closer in spite of how much Greg doesn’t want this to happen; it doesn’t help that his “co-worker” (as he calls him), Earl (RJ Cyler), tells Rachel about all the movies they’ve made together, comprised entirely of remakes like Brew Velvet and A Sockwork Orange. Elated by these films, Rachel incites one of her classmates, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), a requisite hot girl who gets the animation treatment as a moose trampling over Greg every time she touches or talks to him, to suggest that he make a movie as a sort of final gift to Rachel. This enrages Greg, who has spent his entire high school career in a careful shroud of invisibility so as to avoid labels like “filmmaker.” And worse, after becoming so “accessible” thanks to his friendship with Rachel, he has invoked the wrath of goth kid Scott Mayhew (Matt Bennett) and drug dealer Ill Phil (Masam Holden) after working so diligently to sustain the perfect blend of friendliness and distance between them.

And so, the harder Greg tries to make the film for Rachel, the worse he feels it is. One day, while visiting her after she’s stopped going to school altogether because of the escalation of her sickness, Rachel confesses to Greg that she’s decided to stop treatment and doesn’t have much longer to be able to see his movie. Enraged at her for “giving up,” Greg gets in a huge fight with her that prompts her to tell him to leave. Greg, mind you, has assured the audience that Rachel isn’t going to die. In the end, he wanted to believe she wouldn’t.

But to prove her “powers from beyond the grave,” Rachel performs one last act as Greg’s best friend: she writes to the admissions office of the college Greg has been accepted to and then rejected from due to the change in his academic performance during the last semester. She implores them to give Greg a second chance, citing her sickness as the reason for his distraction, and explaining to them that his self-loathing nature and humbleness should be ignored at all costs. Greg reads the letter she wrote to them after standing in her room one last time and going through books turned art projects of hers depicting the three of them (her, Greg and Earl) in various scenes from their friendship.

Greg may have shed his last remaining modicum of youthful innocence as a result of Rachel’s death, but he gains a deeper knowledge–one that his teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), already tried to explain to him, but that Greg had to apprehend on his own: even after a person’s end, his or her story continues to unfold.