Social anxiety is fueled by ego, it’s fueled by that terrifying sense of ourselves as the center of everything. It’s huge burden to be the core of the world. It’s no wonder we freeze with terror at the thought of doing anything at all, of standing out, of creating ripples that might be felt.
The thought that there are other worlds out there just as fragile and large as ours can make the terror and dread even worse. What if we bump into someone else’s world and it shatters our own? What if we shatter someone else’s? What if they don’t even notice or acknowledge that we bumped into them? It’s best to just stay as invisible as possible, to say just enough to not stand out. That’s teenager Greg’s trick in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He has discovered that easy fix of blending in without disappearing, to just get by, to cover up uncomfortableness with humor, and never really admit that you love anyone or anything. Caring is vulnerable state to be in, and as his friend Earl points out, maybe Greg never really had a role model to show him there was another way. This type of living is aggressive in its mildness. It’s cutting everyone else off at the start.
A lot of knee-jerk reactions to MAEATDY online have been to criticize the film for being too narcissistic, for viewing the world only through Greg’s filter. That’s exactly what it does, and that’s absolutely the point of the film. It is not the film’s flaw, it is it’s strength.
It’s not Earl’s story or Rachel’s story. They, and all the other characters we encounter, are reflections of Greg’s perception of them. Greg is at first clueless that these people he barely knows, including his own parents, are anything beyond what they are to him. And, what they are to him is very little because he doesn’t want to get hurt. The girl he’s attracted to is nothing to him beyond a terror. He paints her small bursts of friendliness as cruelty of power, but she’s just another person who’s trying her best and has no idea of the drama Greg’s built up around the attention she gives him.
Greg’s only way to reach out, like many scared and sad people, is humor. It works because it makes other scared and sad people feel better. It’s a goofy costume that shields our vulnerability while still hinting at it. It touches on difficult subjects without diving into them. Humor is often the only way a lot of people can share their heart. The film itself is extremely funny, almost surgically so. There are several moments in the film that garner hard laughs, the kind of laughs that feel tripped by some wire deep inside.
Many people can relate to Greg’s need for distance, but he takes it to an extreme. He refuses to call Earl his friend. Instead, he defines their relationship by what they do together: parody remakes of artsy films. This shared activity keeps Earl close to him while also holding him at a distance. Greg is crazy about film, but he’s still scared of having his own voice, of telling his own story. Making jokey remakes is another way to dance around love while trying to stay out of it. But making anything at all is an indication that you have a passion for something, so he wants to keep it a secret. Knowing Rachel, laughing with her, having her meet Earl, sharing their movies with her -all of these things start to shake up Greg’s pristine seclusion from the rest of the world.
When he attempts to make a film for Rachel (not his own idea, he’s quick to point out,) Greg struggles. He can’t conceive of what she may want to see. Empathy is still a foreign land to Greg, but the attempts are helping him arrive there.
Then, in Greg’s mind, Rachel betrays him by stopping treatment and letting herself die. That’s the narrative as Greg tells it, but there is so much he doesn’t know. He doesn’t ask Rachel what her doctors are saying, or how involved in her decision-making they are, he just lashes out at her as if her illness is an affront to him. He feels exposed because he shared himself with another person, and let them in. He has no compassion for what it much be like for the actual person who’s dying, he’s just angry that he let himself care about someone who’s going to hurt him.
Greg doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, but his mentor at school tells him something very important that alters his worldview. Mr. McCarthy shares that he lost his father when he was about Greg’s age, and when he went to the funeral all these guys came up to him and told him stories about his dad. He suddenly realized there were whole dimensions to this man he had never seen.
When Greg rediscovers Rachel’s room after she’s gone, he’s given several gifts from her from beyond the grave. She’s written him a letter and helped him get into college, but the biggest gift is clueing him into the fact that she’s made things too. She was an artist the whole time, obsessed with making beautiful paper cut worlds on the insides of books, of drawing a narrative on her wallpaper you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking.
Greg isn’t cured by this, he isn’t redeemed, he is just altered. He’s just been knocked out of his self-imposed boundaries a bit. He’s just been forced to confront that there’s a whole lot about other people that is unknowable, and that makes the little bit we have the privilege to see that much more precious.