“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, USA 2015
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
In UK cinemas now
American cinema has always been fascinated by stories of cancer in young people; Love story, USA 1970, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Story_(1970_film), 50/50 (USA, 2011) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/50/50_(2011_film), and more recently “The fault in our stars, USA 2014” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fault_in_Our_Stars_(film).
The first feature film from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon “Me and Earl and the dying girl” explores similar themes of terminal illness, this time “leukaemia” in a young girl, Rachel (Olivia Cook). Gomez- Rejon made the film based on a book of the same name by Jesse Andrews as a tribute to his late father. The film was praised for its bold and unconventional but charming take on cancer, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.
The film starts with Greg (Thomas Mann), a reclusive teen-ager who lives in his own fantasy world of home-made films creatively put together with Earl (Ronald Cyler). In his secondary school, Greg keeps a low profile, apprehensive of any real connection to people around him, and refers to his only companion Earl as his “co-worker” not his friend. This enforced isolation is interrupted when his mother asks him to console a young neighbour Rachel who has just been diagnosed with leukaemia. Reluctantly Greg starts visiting Rachel assuming the role of her “un-official counsellor”. Through Rachel’s journey with leukaemia and chemotherapy, we see the different reactions of those around her slowly coming to terms with her plight; her mother looking for assurance from Greg drowning herself and guests with alcohol, while Greg tries to connect with Rachel in his own awkward way. He reacts to her hair loss following chemotherapy by saying “Bye, bye, hair, God riddance”! What starts off as an unsympathetic reaction from Greg slowly turns into a deep connection between him and Rachel, allowing them both to come to terms with their own contradictions and teenage dilemmas.
In spite of its light-hearted take on a serious subject such as cancer at a young age, the film has its moments of exploring the emotional turmoil of carers of cancer-stricken patients. The stages of initial denial of the illness, followed by grief and acceptance are handled with warmth and affection. The agendas and expectations of patients and carers are quite different as they both desperately try to communicate their reactions to the illness openly and sensitively without hurting each other. Inevitably a third party is crucial in facilitating that communication.
The film suggests that that third party does not have to be a healthcare professional; it can well be a friend or a neighbour using an artistic medium such as film. In their chaotic but heartfelt attempts to make Rachel feel better, Greg and Earl start making a film about her; this part in the film opens a debate into the role of arts and humanities in achieving a sense of well-being in patients and carers in spite of a terminal illness.
What starts off as an exercise in self-indulgence by Greg and Earl making spoofs of classic films, changes into making a film challenging Rachel’s impending death; even if she dies, her film will stand the test of time, and remain as a legacy to her family and friends. Later on Greg finds a collection of art works that Rachel made secretly to commemorate her friendship with Greg and Earl. In that context, the writer and director are saying that “Arts and film can immortalize mortal beings”.
There are significant ethical questions that the film also poses when Rachel decides to stop chemotherapy; namely end of life decisions, and how they impact on the family and friends of patients who decide to end it all by refusing treatment. Exploring such heavily debated ethical minefield resonates with the current heated parliamentary debate around the bill of “assisted suicide” in the UK (http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/key-issues-parliament-2015/social-change/debating-assisted-suicide/).
Having started off with a fresh humorous take on the world of cancer in young people, the film’s second half can be criticized for following a stereotypical path of “self-discovery and tragic endings”. The earlier bitter-sweet funny moments are replaced with a “lingering lump in the throat”. Still for that the film deserves the title of a “winning dramedy”.
Review by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room editor
Address for correspondence Khalid.firstname.lastname@example.org