It was Fr. John Culkin, the Jesuit priest and media literacy educator, who said, “Kids who make movies are more REAL than other kids,” and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl proves him right. Getting to see this tender comedy in Los Angeles while in town for the Digital Media and Learning (DML) conference only made it more of a treat.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and based upon a book by Jesse Andrews, who wrote the screenplay, the story follows a teen boy, Greg, whose emotional development is chronicled as he befriends a dying girl, Rachel. Greg and his best friend Earl, you see, are youth media makers as they remake parodies of classic films using punny titles like Grumpy Cul-de-Sacs (parody of Scorsese’s Mean Streets).

I love how adults are depicted in this film as they morph over time from comic foils to mysterious but tender beings. Greg’s father, a sociologist, is a constant low-key presence in the film, supplying the boys with exotic foods (pate and pigs feet are the only recognizable items). Greg’s tattooed history teacher also feeds him, not just with Vietnamese Pho, but by offering a place of sanctuary inside his Pittsburgh school. This teacher also offers Greg real insight on how imagination is activated with the loss of a loved one, and his words echo in the film’s final moments which demonstrate how we continue to discover and learn about someone we love across the bounds of time and space.

When Greg and Earl make a film for Rachel, they both struggle with the timeless challenge of the creative artist. We watch them animate a short experimental film and are invited to reflect on the power of the genre to represent, capture, distort, and magnify ineffable thoughts, ideas and feelings. Seeing this film with distinguished media artist and media literacy educator, Mindy Faber, as well as filmmakers and media educators Yonty Friesem and Zoey Wang, made this moment in the film even more authentically poignant for me.

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t about youth media, of course, but it captures a bit of what I love most about youth media: When teens get a chance to use image, language and sound for self-expression, they embark on a journey of discovery that enables them to become real.

Because, as children’s author Margery Williams reminds us in The Velveteen Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you are made.” It’s a thing that happens to you when you are loved, really loved. It may be painful sometimes but “once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

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