Cancer weepies have a long lineage, from Love Story to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars. But rarely does a film try to marry leukaemia and laughs like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, whose very title teases with its brazen tactlessness. That it succeeds is down to a cast that doesn’t put a foot wrong, a script that doesn’t land a word out of place, and a sensitive narrative that deftly ties the tragedy of the illness into traditional teen flick themes of angst and social awkwardness.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a gauche, self-doubting high school pupil who spends his time watching arthouse movies and filming parodic versions of them with Earl, his only friend. When Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate Greg barely knows, is diagnosed with leukaemia, his mother forces him to hang out with her. The two strike up a friendship that shades into platonic love, as they bond over their different kinds of isolation. But these are teenagers, and so the big emotions are left unspoken; instead, they’re hinted at in Greg’s spiralling depression, which mirrors Rachel’s own physical decline.
Somehow, amid all this, there’s room left for jokes. The film parodies are a goldmine (choice title: “Rosemary’s Baby Carrots”), and the subtle visual gags would make Wes Anderson proud. It’s partly thanks to top-notch performances by Mann and Cooke that the humour feels of a piece with their characters. But it helps that, where so many American indie flicks would overdo it on the kooky characters and wink-wink one-liners, this one knows when to hold back. Like Greg himself, Me and Earl is gentle, self-effacing and a good deal smarter than it lets on.