Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"
It’s rare to see a film character as clearly drawn as Greg, the narrator and protagonist of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
Most of the people we encounter in movies we instinctively recognize as constructs, things created for the purposes of telling a story. But Greg, who’s adeptly played by Thomas Mann, seems to step through the screen and sit down next to us, cracking jokes and infecting us with his geeky charm.
This Sundance favorite is based on the book by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It’s the second feature as a director for Gomez-Rejon, who spent years as an apprentice and second unit director for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Together they’ve crafted a film that is both very cinematic and un-movie-like. It pokes fun at some of the conventions of filmmaking, such as title cards that say things like, “The part after all the other parts.” Their main triumph, though, is in giving us a young man who’s such a confounding and interesting mix of flaws and virtues.
He’s like a 21st-century Holden Caulfield, though Greg’s ire is mostly projected inward rather than out at the world around him.
Greg is a 17-year-old floater. He wanders between the various cliques of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School with friendly detachment, an emissary to all but a member of none. Insecure and self-effacing, he is so afraid of causing or receiving pain that he tends not to feel anything. Even his best friend since kindergarten, Earl (RJ Cyler), is referred to as a “coworker” because of the short films they make parodying well-known ones.
(Greg likes to brag about how awful they are, but they’re little 1-minute slices of brilliance. “A Sockwork Orange” is played out entirely with tube socks, while “2:48 Cowboy” emulates the seediness of a male gigolo attempting to ply his trade in the middle of the afternoon.)
His world gets thrown for a loop when Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate in his class with whom he’s barely acquainted, is diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s well-meaning parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman), who are friend’s with the girl’s mother (Molly Shannon), insist that he visit her and offer companionship.
Their first meeting is awkward -- that’s pretty much baked into all of Greg’s interpersonal relations -- but goes well enough to justify another, and then another. Soon they’re hanging out, watching movies, talking about teen stuff, and bonding. She gets sicker, they grow closer, and he and Earl embark on a mission to make movie just for Rachel.
Rachel and Earl aren’t as focused as characters as Greg is, but that's intentional. The movie is about him, and they are realized only through his eyes. Other side players stroll in and out of his personal frame, each with the sort of distinct traits you only see in quality films.
For instance, Greg’s dad is a tenured sociology professor, which he translates as meaning he doesn’t have to work a lot, so he mostly stays home and experiments with strange culinary dishes. (When Earl comes over, he offers the boys a snack of dried cuttlefish.)
His history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a strutting, tatted-up rock star who admonishes them to “respect the research.” Shannon is exquisite as Rachel’s mom, who drinks and flirts to hide her pain. Katherine C. Hughes shines as Madison, a pretty girl who unwittingly stomps on Greg’s heart on a virtually daily basis.
In his narration, Greg warns us repeatedly that this is not a sappy love story in which he and Rachel fall in love and then she dies. This is true and also not entirely true, but I’ll leave it to you to discover where verity lies.
Somewhere in this review I should mention that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is also very, very funny. Andrews gives us all sorts of wonderful comedic situations and dialogue. (Of Rachel’s absent father, Greg says, “You need to apply for a dad refund.”) In one scene, Greg drafts his college application personal essay in the voice and perspective of Werner Herzog.
If you don’t know who Werner Herzog is… well, maybe it’s best if you just move along.