Learning From “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”‘

If you watch big Hollywood blockbusters, they often rely on special effects and A-list stars to keep an audience happy. However some of the best films are the smaller, indie films because they have to rely more on telling a great story without the benefit of A-list actors or directors, or massive special effects. One of the best films of 2015 is “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

With most movies, watch it first for enjoyment and watch it a second time to dissect its scene and story structure. In case you haven’t seen the film yet, watch it. For anyone who has already seen the movie or doesn’t mind spoilers, there are plenty of ways each scene works to set up future events that get paid off in later scenes.

In one scene, the hero, an awkward high school senior, is forced by his mother to talk to a girl who has been diagnosed with leukemia. During their initial conversation, the hero notices that the dying girl has lots of pillows, so he starts talking about how he can’t have too many pillows in his bedroom because his parents will think he’ll masturbate on them. This odd revelation highlights his awkwardness around people, but also sets up a future scene.

Later when the hero and the dying girl become friends, she forces him to eat lunch with her and her friends. That’s when another girl sits down and shows a pillow that she made for her health class. The dying girl makes a joke about the pillow to the hero, who proceeds to joke about masturbating on the pillow to the disgust of everyone at the table. This action pays off the earlier set up of the pillow but also repeats and emphasizes the hero’s awkwardness around others.

Another example of setups and payoffs occurs when the mother of the dying girl tells the hero that when the dying girl’s father left them, the dying girl grabbed some scissors and started cutting up the father’s books that he left behind. Later on we learn that the dying girl cut out books to create dioramas and some of these dioramas she created were scenes of the hero spending time with her. The visual impact of this makes us realize that the dying girl appreciated everything the hero had done for her while she was alive. That visual impact says far more than any dialogue could ever do.

Yet another interesting setup and payoff occurs when the dying girl says her father and her used to count squirrels when they were together. Later the hero sees that the dying girl had drawn squirrels on her tree wallpaper, symbolizing her freedom. Even later we learn that at the dying girl’s funeral, her aunt had told a story about how the dying girl had run away from home and tried to stay in a park in hopes of becoming a squirrel. Learning so much about a dead person makes the hero realize how little he knew her when she was alive and how surprised he is that he’s learning so much more about her when she died.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t just a great story, but a well-structured one where information seems trivial when first presented, but then gets paid off later. Such indirect links between scenes creates a stronger, more unified story than a bad action film that just connects scenes together to show explosions, gunfire, and fights with no other purpose than that.

Watch “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” to see how so many early scenes lay the groundwork for later payoffs. Then watch a bad movie and you’ll notice that it lacks such subtle setups and payoffs, which is why it’s such a bad movie. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is one of those gems that slipped by most people’s notice. It’s a very good movie and a well-structured one, so study it well because it shows how to create a compelling story without special effects and computer-generated graphics.

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