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'Me & Earl & The Dying Girl' (2015)/Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon/Grade: A

This is a deeply special film for me. It helped me push myself out of my shell in my later adolescence. Based on a novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews (who also adapted the screenplay), the movie follows seventeen-year-old Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a loner who finds himself forced to move out of his comfort zone when his mother (Connie Britton) encourages him to visit a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's just been diagnosed with leukemia. As the two begrudgingly get to know each other, they start to realize they have more in common than they thought, and Greg learns that there's more to people (including himself) than meets the eye.

I haven't had a friend who had cancer, but I related deeply to Greg in this movie because, like him, I was very much a loner when I was a teenager. I didn't think I was worth being friends with or dating, and so I just kept to myself and held everyone at a distance. When I did reluctantly start going out of my shell, I was so pleasantly shocked to find that people wanted to be around me, a revelation which pushed me to continue pursuing a belief in my self-worth, and to pursue cultivating a social circle. When I first saw this, watching Thomas Mann's performance was like looking through a mirror, which spoke to how good he was. It also spoke to Jesse Andrews' smart writing, which mostly felt like how real people talk.

I also appreciated the writing for the character of Rachel. As opposed to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she felt like a real human being. She has insecurities, she had her areas where she felt confident. At the start of the film, she seemed relatively unfazed, but progressively let the inner fear out as the story went along. She did not exist purely to show Greg life's possibilities and pull him out of his shell. Their dynamic felt like an actual friendship, where they both inspired and pushed each other to grow as people.

Olivia Cooke's performance added to that authenticity and vulnerability. The way she held herself, how she delivered her lines. Both elements combined to truly bring the qualities I just mentioned to life, and it added to the movie's message about how there's always more to people than there appears to be.

The production design by Gerald Sullivan also provided a lot of character for everyone on screen. Rachel's bedroom is crowded with arts and crafts supplies, photos of friends and family, tree-styled wallpaper. Greg's bedroom and home are like a classic film museum, with plenty of posters, and either a classic like Burden of Dreams or The Red Shoes on the TV, or even one of his and Earl's (RJ Cyler) countless parodies, i.e. Brew Velvet, 2:45 PM Cowboy. Those spoofs were also a strong comedic highlight.

Another huge reason this film connected with me as a teenager, and still moves me today, was because it never sugarcoated the sadness of Rachel's looming, inevitable demise, nor did it do that with Greg's self-isolating tendencies. Even though there was plenty of well-done humor, it seemed like it was clearly a defense mechanism for the characters, not so much a false attempt to avoid talking about the hard stuff. They joked or laughed because they needed to, because if they let themselves be vulnerable- actually, that'd have been too scary to think about for them. But once they actually did open up, it unsurprisingly led to much deeper connections. That was so true to life for me.

Me & Earl & The Dying Girl is yet another movie that, if given the opportunity, I would love to thank its creators for. It helped me a lot during a difficult time in my life, and it also happened to provide (and still provides) a LOT of entertainment value. For that reason, it still ranks high on my list of favorite coming-of-age movies.

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