A film review by Craig J. Koban October 16, 2015

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL jjj
 

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. 

Director Alfonso 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.   

 

 

Even more 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. 

Greg is 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.   

Predictably, ME 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 toxically dislikeable.   

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. 

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