Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: From the Rust Belt to Sundance and Back

By Michelle Donnelly · February 9, 2015

It’s a bone-chillingly cold Thursday night in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Only five days earlier, the film showing at the Michigan Theater, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl had won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film at Sundance and had received a five-minute standing ovation. The elusive Sundance standing ovation was the topper for a film that had only been viewed by friends and families before its festival screening.

On this night, Peter McPartlin, Chief Operating Officer of Indian Paintbrush, the film’s production company, had the privilege of attending the film’s screening in the city of his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Known for working with such artists as Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) and the Duplass brothers, Indian Paintbrush had optioned the rights to Jesse Andrews book and approached him to adapt the screenplay. Having never written a screenplay, Andrews was hesitant, proclaiming that he didn’t even have Final Draft. McPartlin remarked that even as they wondered whether they would regret it later, Indian Paintbrush set their concerns aside and financed the project themselves.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about high school student Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and his unlikely friendship with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl suffering from leukemia. Having previously ducked many of the trappings of the high school experience while spending the bulk of his time making off the wall parodies of classic films with friend and “coworker,” Earl (RJ Cyler II), his friendship with Rachel propels him into painful and uncomfortable territory. Thankfully for the audience, the result is heartfelt and genuinely funny. There is so much to love in this movie. Story? Check. Stellar acting? Check. Inventive camera techniques? Check. Geeky cinephile references (my favorite is the Nosferatu tee shirt)? Check. Maybe it’s a movie we’ve seen before, but we’ve not seen these characters before, or at least not in recent memory. It’s a film that connects with the audience. We care about these characters and by the end we are fully invested in their journey.

In the hands of lesser talent, this movie would never have its charm or its Sundance success. Inexperienced as they may be, Mann, Cooke and Cyler each handle their considerably hefty roles with the right amount of cleverness and sincerity. They are exactly who we expect them to be. Then there is the support cast, considerable powerhouses for such an indie film and they do not disappoint. Connie Britton perfectly portrays Gaine’s loving, but overbearing mother and Nick Offerman is beautifully quirky as his father. Molly Shannon is subtle yet striking in her portrayal as a single mother in desperate need of better coping mechanisms. Jon Bernthal rounds out the cast as the hip yet grounded history teacher, whose office becomes the desirable destination for Greg and Earl to escape.



Shot in 25 days around Pittsburgh, where the story takes place, the location perfectly captures the tone of the film. Jesse Andrew’s parents’ house served as Greg’s house and as with all the locales in the movie, it’s comfortable and ordinary; the opposite of ostentatious. Postindustrial Pittsburgh is notable for its middle-class sensibilities but for those who live in such cities know, it can often hide a cultural trove born from residents who earn to find creative outlets in the midst of decay. Similar to what we expect will happen in the future for our characters, yesterday’s decimated rust belt cities are really tomorrow’s hip success stories.

This film is a prime example of what good can happen when novels and films converge and why Hollywood is fond of adaptations. It is a film without pretension, so much so that it manages to make nerdy cinephiles cool. Slightly cynical and sometimes crass, in the end it is most importantly, real. No shiny gloss, no Hollywood sparkle, this movie has shed the glam and gives a fellow Rust Belt survivor hope that today’s youth has shed the affectation of The Hills and the Kardashian’s sheen of desperation; that we will finally get back to the basics that are only so beautifully summed up from a miserable high school experience. Where a friend with a yacht is not a thing and where shopping for a Prada bag isn’t commonplace, but instead where surviving with a smidge of humor and a generous amount of humility is the mark of a worthwhile life.

Video Credit: Variety