What is a teen movie?
Is it a slasher at the drive-in (say what?) pic that pits teenagers against one of their own who is fast killing them?
Or is it more a coming-of-age story featuring a slightly gorky hero/heroine who eventually triumphs over bad parenting, unfair fellow high-school students and a world where their persona doesn’t quite fit the established norms generally provided by advertising?
It may be many more things and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) certainly fits into the second category but adds a crucial element: we see the story from many sides, principally but not just from the viewpoint of its main character Greg (Thomas Mann).
True the story is told totally from Greg’s perspective but writer Jesse Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon are sympathetic to all sides of this difficult time, growing from early teenage years into young adulthood.
Parents, teachers and high school students are opened bare to the viewer but are not without appeal, even the ones who may get things wrong.
Greg is co-erced by his mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. It changes his life.
Having successfully navigated high school to his senior year without committing to any particular social group, Greg has to face the reality of genuine friendship when he spends a lot of his time with Rachel. Not that he doesn’t have a close friend but he calls this young man his co-worker because together the two make parodies of famous movies, seen only by themselves.
Earl (R.J Cyler) provides Greg with an alternative wisdom often bringing him back into line when the latter wanders a bit far off the mark. His input into the relationship with Rachel is pivotal (when he first meets her and the three hang out in her bedroom, it is Earl who keeps the often too-honest Greg from embarrassing her and it is telling that when they leave, he embraces her while Greg cannot).
However, it is also Earl who brings his and Greg’s relationship to a head when first he tells Rachel of the films the two make and then reveals a secret Greg wishes to hold that the two are making a tribute film for her.
We see Greg’s devotion to this girl – who he insists in voice over is not going to die in this story – and it costs him his place in college when he totally rejects his schooling to help keep her happy.
When Rachel eventually rejects chemotherapy it brings about the two’s first argument and his world is shattered when she tells him that none of this was Greg’s idea. His mother made him come visit, Earl made him show her their films and fellow-student Madison suggested the boys make the tribute movie.
Greg spirals downward, his general anonymity at school is exposed, he misses Rachel, who he now believes will soon die, and Earl quits the film project.
All this is told within vibrant and often original humour. Greg and Rachel’s mothers (Saturday Night Live alumni Connie Britton and Molly Shannon respectively) are part saints, part demons; Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) is humorously shambolic; and the high school students are comedically well drawn.
Splashed among the scenes are cartoon-playdough images and scenes from Greg and Earl’s movie parodies. Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now, The Red Shoes, Rashomon, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange got a run as did Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), where Klaus Kinski attempts to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. I found the parodies the highlight of a splendid movie.