Part of bargain in abandoning society in favor of the arts is supposed to be the widening of the self. Art is supposed to deepen thoughts about the human condition, to expose the partaker to greater threads of consciousness. The unstated flipside to this of course is that exposure to art will allow you to become inured to life without actually having to live it.
This seems to be Greg’s bargain. He’s deeply immersed in cinema, and lets his counterparts in great film act out his greatest fears. Certainly none of his masturbation humor could ever be worse than Travis Bickle’s date night at a porn theater in Taxi Driver. Fate would never conspire to such operatic lengths to steal away his love like in Tales of Hoffmann. Certainly no one could end up as tragically alone as mad Aguirre, floating up the Amazon on a raft full of monkeys.
Of all the auteurs to side with, Greg picks Werner Herzog. It’s not so much for his skill as a filmmaker but for the the bleak outlook on life. Greg often speaks nihilistic Herzog quotes at length, adopting the accent and the mannerisms. If only pantomime were enough to truly adopt that perspective! Herzog’s jaundiced view of the nature of life may have been able to absorb the full tragedy of a child dying too young of a cruel disease.
Herzog did not arrive from his perspective easily. He grew up in the shadow of World War 2 in a defeated country whose wartime actions have kept it a pariah for generations hence. Who knows, at some point there may have been a boy, as hopeful and invincible as any other child.
The dying girl here is Rachel, who is diagnosed with an advanced stage of leukemia. They are not friends, even though Greg imagines himself a social butterfly, a masterful negotiator of all the High School cliques. In truth he has only one substantial relationship, one which he resists calling a friendship. That’s Earl. Though culturally, and racially, dissimilar, they both share a bond over classic films.
Rachel and Greg are not brought together through their will, but instead through parental nagging. On their first “playdate”, Rachel sees straight through Greg’s intentions and Greg makes no attempt to lie to her, however they’re soon inseparable. Given the chronology of the film, Greg returns to her side every night and she enters his hermetic world of cinema fantasy.
There’s no silver lining to death. There’s certainly nothing just or fair about a child losing their life, whether or not to cancer. To its credit Me and Earl and the Dying girl doesn’t pretend otherwise. The conclusion is not quite as bleak as Jason Isbell’s final admonition “if there’s one thing that’s clear to me/no one dies with any dignity”. Instead it only offers a minor consolation: that a life, even a short life, is too broad for any other person to fully grasp it. The person who passed can continue to grow even in their absence through the clues and totems they leave behind.
When the promised plot twist occurs, and the deed is done, Me and Earl proves in a few brief sequences that Rachel was a much larger presence than even Greg realized after a year beside her. In a neat way it reshuffles exactly who was the charity case in their relationship.