ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
2015, PG-13, 105 mins.
2015, PG-13, 105 mins.
Thomas Mann as Greg Gaines / RJ Cyler as Earl (as Ronald Cyler II) / Olivia Cooke as Rachel / Connie Britton as Greg's Mom / Nick Offerman as Greg's Dad / Molly Shannon as Denise Kushner
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / Screenplay by Jesse Andrews, based on his 2012 novel
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL covers an awful lot of overtly familiar narrative terrain. It’s yet another on a long list of offbeat and eccentrically quirky coming-of-age high school films that also happens to be submerged with a cancer melodrama. On paper, nothing in this film is superficially fresh or original, and initially at least, it’s a work that seems to be harnessing the film canon of John Hughes and Wes Anderson with a bit too much obviousness.
However, once you
allow yourself to be taken in with all of its familiar troupes, ME AND
EARL AND THE DYING GIRL slowly develops into something well beyond other
examples of its cross-morphed genre: it becomes uncommonly charming,
insightful, and tragic in equal dosages.
Beyond that, the film also, oddly enough, becomes a loving salute
to the movies themselves.
Gomez-Rejon (a former assistant to Martin Scorsese) and writer Jesse
Andrews (adapting his 2012 novel of the same name) have accomplished
something relatively special with ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL in the
sense that it’s not a teen romance picture. Instead, it’s more
refreshingly about the power of platonic male/female relationships when
put through the trials and tribulations of terminal illness.
It’s not about an obligatory young man looking to score with an
unattainable girl and then learning to love in the process.
More compellingly, it’s about young souls learning about
friendship, mortality, and dealing with the inevitability of someone’s
death. The non-sexual
component to ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL allows for the film to
encompass aspects of the adolescent condition that goes beyond issues
often portrayed in contemporary teen infused dramadies.
More than anything, Gomez-Rejon’s film – despite its sometimes
distracting visual flourishes and dialogue that feels a bit too stiltedly
stylish for its own good – really does a fine job of exploring how young
people cope with their own insecurities, nagging doubts, and fear of loss.
intriguing is how the film is told largely through a narrator that, for
the most part, can’t totally be trusted as a reliable source of the
truth. He certainly provides
nuggets of information here and there that’s beneficial to the viewer,
to be sure, but some of his statements – often paired with whimsical and
self-aware title cards serving as chapter intros to the story – have a
sense of incongruity. The
young man in question is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), one of two teenagers
in the film that is obsessed with classic films of yesteryear.
He and his BFF since childhood Earl (RJ Cyler) are extraordinarily
literate when it comes to the cinema, having grown up gorging on films
like Werner Herzog’s ACQUIRE THE WRATH OF GOD, Truffaut’s THE 400
BLOWS, and Powell and Pressberger’s TALES OF HOFFMANN, just to name a
few. The duo spends most of
their free time together making their own spoofs of the classics that they
revere so much, and the films within in the film are some of the hilarious
highlights here. I especially
liked THE 400 BROS, THE SOCKWORK ORANGE, and – yes – 2:48 P.M. COWBOY.
exceptionally bright minded and ambitious, but he’s also a depressed
young man that has difficulty maintaining meaningful friendships with
anyone (he even refers to Earl more as a work colleague than as a buddy).
One day Greg’s mother (the always wonderful Connie Britton)
decides to stage an intervention and demands that her son go and visit a
local classmate named Sarah (Olivia Cooke), whom has just been diagnosed
with cancer and does not have much time left.
The neurotic loner that is Greg can’t initially understand why
his mother is forcing him to spend time with a girl that he’s neither
friends with nor really knows on any level.
Rachel is equally incredulous – and a bit annoyed – when Greg
shows up at her home. Greg,
not wanting to disappoint his mother and depress a terminally ill girl any
further – pleads with Rachel to allow him to spend time with her.
She begrudgingly acquiesces, and, wouldn’t you know it, they
begin to form a highly unlikely bond.
Again, one of the
pleasures of ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is the non-romantic element of Greg and
Rachel’s relationship. The
film is not compelled by the typical genre accoutrements of examining
young love and courtship; instead, it’s more fascinated by relaying all
of the social awkwardness that exists between two people that, at first,
don’t want to be friends, but unavoidably grow to appreciate and yearn
for each other's company. They
have a stronger bond in the sense that their friendship will eventually
end when Rachel dies, and the whole looming threat of her demise weighs
heavily on both of them. The
fact that she has received a death sentence from leukemia means that Greg
is forced to make an emotional commitment that very few teenagers are
either able to or fully comprehend.
The film also becomes a tale of Greg’s growing maturity and
altruism: He and Earl decide to make Rachel a farewell/tribute gift in the
form of a movie just for her. In
the process, Greg learns to emerge from his own self-preserving shell of
seclusion and instead…does something kind for someone else that matters.
AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL gets a lion’s share of its well earned
laughs from Greg and Earl’s film parodies, and you can also sense Gomez-Rejon
living vicariously through his young and intrepid filmmakers.
The home movies within the movie are ultra low budget and shoddy
looking, but they have an inherent slyness and oddball charm to them.
Along the way, though, the film still manages to tackle the
day-to-day obstacles that Rachel deals with in terms of her condition and
how it acts as a frequent source of stress on her budding friendship with
Greg. There’s one masterfully handled scene that highlights this,
done with one long, protracted, and unbroken shot that showcases a very
tense argument between the two teens that emphasizes how both are
struggling with making sense of their relationship.
Unlike so many phony and manufactured teen genre films, it’s a
wonderful sight to see performers like Mann and Cooke fully submerge
themselves within and inhabit their respective roles. The screenplay –
and Mann’s performance – also walks a delicate line between making
Greg too easygoing and wishy-washy and a persona that’s sometimes
ME AND EARL AND
THE DYING GIRL takes some time to get invested in.
At first, Gomez-Rejon’s camera work and editing feels a bit too
showy, which sometimes draws too much attention to itself and drowns out
the human element in his film. The
film is also populated by characters that don’t so much feel authentic as
they do come off as a writer’s invention, like Greg’s bohemian father
(Nick Hofferman). Other
times, the dialogue itself – replete with abnormally wise and astute pop
culture referencing – seems a bit too obtrusively on the nose.
Nevertheless, and aside from its obvious foibles, ME AND EARL AND
THE DYING GIRL juggles heart-warming wit, sarcastic charm, the poignancy
of young friendship, and the crushing and painful truths about life and
death better than many recent films. Sometimes the director’s overall aesthetic becomes off-puttingly
self-indulgent, but the emotional core and heart of the film is what
ultimately makes it an extremely sweet tempered and inescapably and
profoundly sad coming-of-age tale with a sensation of hope at the end.