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.
While Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has its flaws, the film stands as both a witty and raw treatment of humanity’s struggle to achieve vulnerability and openness in personal relationships. It is also a story about death; death from the perspective of a character who isn’t doing the dying.
This is why I would not have seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl if I had known more about it. Last year, my father died of the same cancer Rachel battles during the film (Acute Myeloid Leukemia). It is a story I know all too well—and one, if I’m being honest, that was difficult to revisit. When tragedy enters our lives, it causes us to realize how strong or shallow our relationships really are. There are not cuts. No escapes. No looking away. There is only weakness, fear, and trembling. Vulnerability.
In this way, Greg’s story is often our story. When we let others draw close enough to peer at our quirks, cuts, and failures, we run the risk of having our personal imperfections scare them away. Or even worse, we open ourselves up to pain if they leave us—either purposefully or not. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reminded me what death taught me this last year: If I want to create genuine community, I have to be willing to transcend surface-level conversations, even though it might hurt. Living with death in mind forces us to be vulnerable, though it shouldn’t take such extreme measures for us to get there.
Sadly, Christians are not always comfortable with vulnerability. As a teenager, church leaders told me to ignore doubt and “just trust God” when faced with disbelief. The fear of displeasing others—and more importantly God—kept me silent and disconnected. Openness was replaced by a fake smile, a dash of sarcasm, and a bag of cliché answers. It took opening up, years later, for my faith to grow.
Just like the protagonist in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, our obsession with public image can keep us from being vulnerable—or letting others be vulnerable with us. It can cause us to navigate the halls of our places of worship, saying hello to all, but never truly connecting. We don’t want to be seen as a “less-than” Christian, so the only version of ourselves that we let others see is an empty hallway of our greatest hopes, dreams, hobbies, and struggles.
Despite this aversion, vulnerability can be a beautiful staple among believers. True community can be birthed only from openness. When we let others see behind our façade—whether it be in a small group or one-on-one conversation—we often find that they too struggle, and often times with similar issues. Openness provides support as we tread through our doubts and overcome our weaknesses. Sharing our true selves with others, as I have found, helps us know we are not alone. The body of Christ provides the nutrients it takes to heal and care for its limbs—if they stay connected.
What causes a lack of openness? Why do we fear vulnerability? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seems to provide an answer. Greg’s low self-esteem and narcissism kept his relationships resigned to surface-level arrangements. His identity was tethered to his performance. This is why Greg kept his films locked away from the world. If others found his art odd, how would they find him? He feared the criticism that taking a risk might bring. He also worried about how others would perceive him if his true personality took flight. After hanging out with Rachel at school for the first time, Greg’s internal monologue strikes an alarm when other students hear his unfiltered humor. The situation grows awkward, and Greg is left feeling like he needs to dial his personality down to introversion in order to be accepted. Because his identity is so fearful of what others think, Greg freezes at the opportunity to reveal himself.
Though it is easy to relate to Greg, Christians should understand more than anyone else that true identity is found not in our work, but in the work of Someone greater. The gospel transforms our insecurities by revealing that we are not defined any longer by our quirks or flaws, but by God’s acceptance of us. He knows our deepest, darkest secrets, yet still chooses to love us. When everything is stripped away, this is all that remains. Knowing our true identity helps us pursue vulnerability in our local communities of faith. Opening to others can open a window to grace, allowing a breeze of connection to pass through to our bones. Vulnerability can be joyful. We know we have problems, but we also understand the reality grace offers those problems. This allows us to both rely on God’s grace as well as offer it to others.
While Me and Earl and the Dying Girl illustrates the pain openness can bring, it also serves as a poignant picture of the love and support vulnerability can provide to its willing participants.
And for that, I am glad I saw it.
Wade is the cohost of Seeing and Believing, a film and TV podcast that searches for the sacred on screen. He's also a writer, pastor, and adjunct instructor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Wade lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. You can catch his blog at www.wadebearden.com or follow him on Twitter @WadeHance.