If I had known more about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I probably would not have watched it.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance darling finds its protagonist in Greg (played by Thomas Mann), a teenage loner who spends his free time producing parodies of classic films. Greg is an enigma. Like the layout of his Pennsylvania high school divides into multiple sections, Greg’s life is purposely compartmentalized. He is on a first-name basis with nearly every group in school—he is just as comfortable bumming it with the drama club as he is high-fiving the senior class drug dealer—but his relationships are shallow and superficial. He makes small talk, and there’s little more.
Greg knows everyone, but he doesn’t really know anyone. More importantly, they don’t know him. Greg’s constructed the people around him into cartoon-like caricatures. They have become the sum of their outward ticks. He can’t even bring himself to call his oldest acquaintance, Earl (R. J. Cyler), a friend. Greg prefers the term “coworker” instead. The word “friend” is “way too personal.”
Soon, Greg is forced by his mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. After some arm-twisting, the pair eventually develop a casual friendship. They do most of the things normal teenagers do: talk, laugh, and give each other a hard time. There is just one aspect missing from their relationship: vulnerability. As quick as he is to crack a joke, Greg rarely strays into deeper emotional territory. His humor often serves as a shield to his true self. Greg even feels apprehensive about Rachel watching the movies he shoots with Earl.
No better is his psyche visualized than in a scene where Greg calls Rachel for the first time. During the conversation, the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver plays on the TV beside Greg. In between Greg’s conversation, the audience catches a peek at one of Scorsese’s most famous shots. Robert De Niro sits in a dirty hallway, he too is talking on the phone to a woman. Insecure, odd, and growing more unstable by the minute, De Niro’s Travis Bickle took a risk by asking the beautiful Betsy out on a date. The evening ended badly, and now the woman in question is telling Travis she never wants to see him again. As Travis hears the bad news, the camera slowly shifts away to the hallway—Scorsese choosing to look at an empty frame rather than peer into Travis’ broken heart.
This shot is Greg’s life, and it’s no coincidence Gomez-Rejon chooses to insert it at the moment Greg’s and Rachel’s relationship begins. Greg’s greatest fear is expressing vulnerability and in turn finding pain. Like Scorsese’s camera, Greg’s keeps the world from peering into his personal life. He does not allow others the intimacy of knowing his inner self. All we see is a hallway.
Later in the film, after Rachel and Greg have grown closer, Gomez-Rejon juxtaposes Taxi Driver’s iconic pan with a scene where the students argue for the first time. In their most honest and passionate discussion yet, Rachel and Greg express the kind of genuine emotion only vulnerability can offer. Gomez-Rejon chooses to shoot this conversation in one long, extended take. Unlike Scorsese, there is no looking away. There are no cuts or editing. Greg has to deal with his feelings. The idea of death has opened Greg’s emotions in a way nothing else has. He has become vulnerable, and that vulnerability comes with a price.