So there once was a young-adult novel about a girl with a cancer, that was turned into a movie, and shot in Pittsburgh.
No, not that one. The other young-adult novel about a girl with cancer, turned into a movie, shot in Pittsburgh.
Yes, Jesse Andrews’ book, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” has some superficial similarities to a certain massive mega-hit called “The Fault in Our Stars.” “Me and Earl” is currently being shot in and around Pittsburgh, where the book is set.
“I know it’s gotten my book more attention,” says Andrews, 31, originally from Point Breeze. “I’m a debut (author), not a known quantity. I know I’ve gotten more attention as a companion (to ‘Fault’). ‘Me and Earl’ is like this renegade, potty-mouthed little brother to the incredibly popular older sibling. When they both show up for school, it’s like, ‘How did they come from the same family?’ ”
In tone, plot, characters, sense of humor and just about everything else, “Me and Earl” is not only different from “Fault,” it’s different from just about everything.
“Me and Earl” is about a kid from Squirrel Hill named Greg, who takes a hard look at himself and realizes that he isn’t going to do very well in the social swirl of high school.
He’s weird-looking, even weirder acting, and struggles to not blurt out the even weirder things that he’s thinking (is there a fungus eating his brain?) at the most awkward, inconvenient times.
His only friend is Earl, a short and short-tempered kid from a dangerous, unsupervised household in Homewood. They’re more co-workers than friends, making strange micro-budget movies inspired by Greg’s dad’s collection of strange art cinema (in particular, the tormented existential warfare of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski).
So Greg decides to opt out entirely, coasting through school like a ghost, friend to no one. It seems to be working, until his mother compels him to become friends with a girl named Rachel, who has cancer.
“For me, art is a way to tell human stories,” Andrews says. “The most important thing about them is that they allow you to be someone else for a while. You can be a few other people, which allows you to empathize in a way that nothing else lets you do. That’s why it’s important to make characters that are full and real enough to make that experience as rich as it can possibly be.”
The characters in “Me and Earl” are odd but are drawn so sharply, so vividly, that they seem to get closer to the essential absurdity of adolescence than most. There’s also a bracing lack of earnestness and sentimentality and unearned uplift in this book. Everything goes contrary to expectations at pretty much every turn.
“The stories we grew up with — mainstream movies and children’s books — those are different in a lot of ways from life as we know it, and people as we know them,” Andrews says. “There’s a lot of conventions to fiction as it tends to be written, that fly in the face of what we know of life. Life is way weirder and more boring, but it’s also more exciting.
“There’s no love story here, for instance. Can we just have one book where we have a guy and girl, and they don’t fall in love? There’s a corrective quality to this. You see books and movies, and you might feel cheated when you look back on life. ‘Where’s my cookie-cutter love story with three acts, and redemption and wisdom at the end?’ ”
Though it’s rarely crucial to the plot, there are tons of Pittsburgh references in “Me and Earl.” Greg’s dad is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. There’s even a cursory explanation of “yinzers.”
However, the high school — with its panoply of cliques competing for in-group status — is a total invention. The book’s dedication reads, “For Schenley, which Benson is not.”
“I feel a great fondness for Schenley (the now-closed high school in Oakland),” Andrews says. “It was a school of terrific diversity, both racial and socioeconomic. It was a really harmonious place to go to high school. Whatever you’d credit for creating a strong sense of community, we had that.
“I also knew it was something you couldn’t do anything funny with. I knew the school I wanted to make had more friction and more people not getting along, more cliques that are categorically opposed to each other. Greg, with his deep insecurity and sort of love of drama and friction, has got it into his head that Benson is this jungle-like ecosystem of terror, with the strong eating the weak.”
Andrews finds endless comedy in the strange social situations one is forced into in high school.
“First of all, it’s this time of becoming,” he says. “You get to puberty and you’re not a kid anymore, but you have these traits of being a kid. You can’t get away with a lot of the same stuff. You’re trying to figure out who you are. Some kids are just throwing personas against the wall — they’re this person this month, someone else the next. It’s so funny — but not while you’re in it.”
The movie of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is low-budget — Andrews estimates that it’s under $5 million — but high on talent. It includes Thomas Mann (“Project X”) as Greg, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) as Rachel and R.J. Cyler as Earl. Jon Bernthal from the “Walking Dead” plays a teacher named Mr. McCarthy. The four-week shoot is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”).
When “Fault” was shooting in Pittsburgh, Andrews tried to pick a fight with author John Green on Twitter, as a joke: “Did your YA (young adult) cancer book for real just become a Pittsburgh YA cancer movie? NOW WE GOT BEEF, SON.”
It didn’t go as planned. Green responded (via Twitter): “But then I would have to pretend I didn’t like your book when in fact I found it very, very funny.”
Andrews replied: “I too would have to pretend that I am not one of the 8,101,499 people who found your book gut-wrenching and beautiful.”
“He defused it in an incredibly classy way, which wasn’t what I was hoping for,” Andrews says. “It was a pathetic non-beef.”
Andrews says that he gets a lot of comments about the sheer amount of profanity in “Me and Earl.”
“It’s over the top,” Andrews says. “I feel a little regret about it, even though I’d probably do it the same way if I did it again. It’s hard to get away from. That’s the reality of how teenagers talk. The profanity — they’re not even that good at using it, which defangs it a bit for me. It doesn’t have the same mean-spiritedness (as adult swearing). Well, not always.”
“I swear, I feel like it’s my inner teenager — a way of communing with the troubled, awkward teenager inside us. It’s an armor, but they’re not wearing it right.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.