Tea & Pearls & the Flying Squirrel

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. A film by Alfonso Gomez Rejon.

Some forty years ago, long before Netflix and movies on demand, I had a friend named Rob who was obsessed with movies in general and Robert DeNiro in particular. One evening we had Rob over with a married couple of our acquaintance, and the movie Bang the Drum Slowly was showing on TV. We explained to our friends that, although it was unusual to settle down after dinner and watch a movie, Rob really wanted to see this one. He could just leave, or we could all watch. They hesitated a little, frowned, this was all kind of awkward, and finally said sure, they’d be happy to watch. As it was just starting, and it became apparent that the DeNiro character had terminal Hodgkin’s disease, the woman in the couple—who probably was miffed that we were watching a movie instead of enjoying her fascinating conversation—said, “Oh! Is this a leukemia movie? I love leukemia movies.”

What she didn’t know was that Rob’s brother currently had Hodgkin’s, yet another reason he wanted to see the movie, and my father had died of leukemia. It was one of those witty remarks that fell a little flat. We didn’t go into it.

The latest in a long line of leukemia movies, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, has so many of the clichés of young adult fiction (I speak as a person who wrote two books that were marketed as YA’s, and had some of these clichés in his own books) that it’s almost annoying. There’s Greg (Thomas Mann), the scruffy funny talented guy who will be every woman’s dream when he’s 35 but who as a teenager feels gawky and awkward and stupid and out of place; there’s the black guy, Earl (RJ Cyler), who is much cooler than Greg and more self-confident, equally smart, but who comes from a broken family and has a brother who’s a thug; the scruffy academic father (Nick Offerman) who is quite cool and around all the time (apparently he has tenure) and gives the boys the interest in film that is the centerpiece of the movie; the high school teacher who Understands Young People and is genuinely quite cool and thus saves the boys from an impossibly stupid school (Jon Bernthal); the alcoholic mother (Molly Shannon) who is really a nice person and loves everybody in a slobbery kind of way but who is so embarrassing that it’s hard to be around her. And then of course there’s the dying girl, he incredibly smart, incredibly pretty, incredibly brave young woman who’s been dealt this terrible hand by life (I believe the quotation in Bang the Drum Slowly, if I’m remembering correctly after all these years, is “Tell me I didn’t get a shit deal”) and who becomes the major project of Greg’s senior year because deep down he is a wonderful young man. This cast was made for a young adult novel. Boys will read it because they identify with Greg (aren’t we all secretly talented and good looking, though no one sees it), girls will read it because it includes a bookish girl character and because they’re by far the biggest readers of all YA fiction; black kids will read it because it’s got a great black character. As they would say in Pittsburgh, the setting for the story, this idea got bestseller written all over it.

But what if that really is your story? (I myself had the saving teacher, the alcoholic mother, the smart sensitive and actually very pretty girl if you just had the good sense to notice, the dying character, all right, it was my father, but that’s sad too. I actually called the illness cancer, instead of calling it leukemia, because of what that woman said that night in my living room.) What if that’s the story you’ve got to tell? Haven’t all stories been told before? Aren’t all characters clichés? You have to go with it and tell it in a new way. You trust that, though many stories have been written about a young person facing death, you can make this one unique.

And this one is. Greg is a winner from the moment we meet him. Earl lights up the screen every time he appears. It’s Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) who makes him hook up with the dying girl in the first place, but she’s obviously such a warm-hearted well-meaning person that we find her convincing even as we’re laughing at her. She’s right, after all. Greg actually tells Rachel that his mother made him come see her, which has a certain awkward charm. And nobody makes a big deal of Rachel’s sloppily drunk mother. She’s there all the time, an awkward obstacle that Greg has to walk through while he gets clutched in a desperate hug and multiply kissed. We all faced that when we were kids.

The brilliant thing about the movie is the interest that has brought Greg and Earl together. Greg’s shambling ineffectual father is a sociology prof (is there a more innocuous profession?) but his real passion is foreign film, and he infects Earl and Greg with it from an early age. They take the titles of famous movies (as I have done with the title of this movie), alter them in some clever way, and make a short movie of that. They’ve been doing this for years. They’re obsessed with it.

Of course they wind up showing the movies to Rachel, though they’ve shown them to no one else; of course they make a movie for and about Rachel because she’s dying—they spend their whole senior year doing it—and of course, though Greg thinks it’s horrible and embarrassing, it’s a weird kind of masterpiece, way beyond anything he’s done before. All that is mixed with the usual embarrassments and difficulties of high school, in a clever and tasteful way. Me and Earl isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a very good movie, which starts with a cloying premise. The central idea was a minefield of schmaltz. The filmmakers seem to have avoided every detonation.

An added bonus for me was that the movie was set in my home town. Not the Pittsburgh of many other movies, which show a few downtown streets and an occasional glimpse of a river, but the actual Pittsburgh of my youth, the area which I guess I would call lower Oakland; I didn’t recognize the streets, but did recognize the houses: the old huge Pittsburgh brick house that has seen better days and must be a bear to heat but is incredibly homey. My sister raised four children in just such a place. And the high school in question is Schenley, a famous city school of my youth. Just to hear the name warmed my heart.

You won’t appreciate all that, but you will appreciate this film, which takes the clichés of growing up and makes them original. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, as the ads used to say. But you’ll be doing so over a work of art.