Fest Winner is a Warm Funny Tribute to the Weight of Friendship
DIRECTOR: ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON/2015
It would be both easy and lazy to compare Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to last year’s hit The Fault in Our Stars. Both are about teens with cancer, both based on Young Adult novels. But this is a very different movie. It’s not a romance and not a tearjerker, though some tears may be shed by audiences. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl took both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival – and deserved those awards. It pulls off something impressive in offering a very funny comedy about growing up and mortality. It’s never maudlin or emotionally manipulative, but also doesn’t treat suffering lightly.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a chronically self-deprecating high school senior who survives socially by lightly skimming the surface of every interaction. He’s a member of no clique, but manages to be be innocuously pleasant to all – a coping mechanism he’s perhaps too proud of. In its examination of the perils of high school society Me and Earl and the Dying Girlcovers Mean Girl territory, but from a boy’s perspective – a move I appreciate. Mann is completely convincing as a bright, likeable but awkward kid. I think we all knew (or were) some version of him in high school.
Greg has just one friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), although he refers to Earl as a coworker rather than friend. Greg and Earl have been making parodies of classic films since early childhood, with jokey titles like The 400 Bros and My Dinner with Andre the Giant. When they’re not making their admittedly terrible movies they’re watching more. There’s very little warmth between the ironically detached Greg and the direct, no-b.s. Earl. Nevertheless, they are a team.
Greg’s protective shell is cracked when his mother insists he spend time with a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia. I want to directly praise the filmmakers and the novelist behind this story for not making Rachel a cliché. She could have been the dying “manic pixie dream girl” who courageously draws Greg out of his emotional torpor with her joie de vivre. But Rachel is not that. She’s quiet, a bit serious, creative in ways that people don’t necessarily see, and initially unimpressed with Greg’s coerced attempts at befriending her.
The relationship that ultimately develops between these two is steady and unforced. Sometimes, when the chemotherapy is wearing her down, Rachel has little to say. Sometimes Greg doesn’t know what to say either.
Earl is no respecter of the careful boundaries Greg has put up, and after being introduced to Rachel, gives her access to the movies he and Greg have made – movies that Greg doesn’t even show willingly to his parents. In no time word has gotten out that Greg and Earl are filmmakers, and one of Rachel’s friends is pressuring Greg to make a movie for Rachel. For someone who has carefully tried to keep everything in his life casual, non-committal, no more meaningful than a quip, this is catastrophic. For the first time Greg is trying to make a movie that matters, and it’s paralyzing.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is many things at once. It’s a quirky comedy – occasionally too quirky for its own good; a love letter to people who love movies; a testament to how frightening the passage from adolescence to adulthood can be; and a tribute to the power of friendship. Deep friendship between a boy and a girl – apart from romance and sex – is rarely given its due on screen and I was happy to see it taken seriously.
The cast in this movie is really wonderful. Cyler’s Earl is wry and realistic about Greg’s emotional issues. Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal are the adults tryng to guide these teenagers through a tragic situation. And Olivia Cooke is especially fine as Rachel. Her wide eyed face is beautifully emotive, especially as the leukemia begins to draw her out of Greg’s world. It’s also a strength of the film that none of these character seem especially “good” at handling what’s happening. Rachel’s mom is drinking far too much. Classmates offer nothing but platitudes. And Greg is wounded and lashes out cruelly when Rachel chooses to stop treatment. He is not noble: he’s a kid, and he’s afraid, and that’s as it should be.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a veteran of TV shows like Glee and American Horror Story, has made a film that is a treat to look at. Not only are there all of the parody films, glimpses of which are little gifts to the audience (because despite Greg telling us that they’re awful, they actually look kind of brilliant); but Gomez-Rejon shoots the rest of the movie with an eye for wonder: tilted angles, God’s-eye views, the patience to show interesting textures. The tiny details stand out: the peak of a hat, a curtain blowing in the breeze, the extravagant fluffiness of a pillow on Rachel’s bed. It’s a fully realized world, and one which draws much more than just tears out of the story of a dying girl.