'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'
Reduced down to its logline of a title, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ sounds like an almost impossibly twee indie film too syrupy to stomach. Mixing together hipster quirk with cancer tears, the movie should be the worst example of semi-mainstream Sundance entertainment. And yet, against all odds, it’s one of the best examples of that flawed form. The movie works well enough to reduce even the most hardened of cynics like myself into a blubbering mess.
Thomas Mann (‘Beautiful Creatures’) stars as a self-loathing, self-preservational high schooler named Greg. He has only a single friend (RJ Cyler), and maintains the flimsiest of relationships with as many people as possible to keep from becoming invisible on campus. All that changes when his mom (Connie Britton) forces Greg to hang out with a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.
It’s a reluctantly awkward bond at first, with Greg spending most of his time explaining why they shouldn’t be friends. Then laughs develop and a friendship forms. Gradually, Greg lets Rachel into his world, inviting her to meet his eccentric professor father (Nick Offerman) and watch the ridiculous art film parodies that he makes. It’s all very goofy and fun and relatable. But of course if you’ve read the title, you’ll know that things aren’t heading toward a smiles-and-sunshine finale.
What’s most impressive about ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ on first viewing is just how alive, moving and amusing it feels. Jesse Andrews adapted the script from his own novel, and as a result there’s a certain air of personal intimacy to the project. However, it’s also quite funny, goofy and exaggerated stylistically. Only the emotions and characters feel real.
The movie itself is heightened, but not in a plastic Hollywood sense. This is one of those ornately photographed, deadpan surreal comedies that started to appear after Wes Anderson made it big and brought all his filmmaking obsessions back into fashion (French New Wave flicks, Hal Ashby, early Mike Nichols, etc.). Early on, the abundance of show-off visual tricks that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (along with ‘Oldboy’ cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung) employs can feel overwhelming. Yet it’s all with a purpose. The movie is a giddy and stylish romp primarily to draw viewers in, only to slow down and curdle over with emotion once audiences have become attached.
The cute no-budget parodies of ‘Breathless’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Burden of Dreams’ and such are all charmingly silly. Yet unlike so many Wes Anderson rip-off artists, the filmmakers never lose track of the emotional core here. Sure, plenty of side characters are little more than single quirk comedy fodder. (Even the titular supporting character Earl comes close to falling into this trap). Mann’s character, on the other hand, is anything but. He’s a painfully self-effacing loner lost in his head and unwilling to connect meaningfully with anyone around him (you know, like most teens and plenty of adults for that matter). As his slow-burn reluctant friendship with Cooke develops into something more, a dramatic weight builds. Inevitably, the film concludes in a devastatingly moving series of sequences. They never feel too cloy or manipulative, though. They feel oddly honest, in stark contrast to all the goofy movie games played around them.
A great deal of credit must be given to the cast – particularly Mann, who hits all the right comedic and dramatic beats and welcomely allows his character to feel annoying or unlikable when called for. Cooke is also quite strong in her frequently silent role, never losing her character’s sense of strength even while withering away. Supporting veterans like Offerman, Britton and Molly Shannon also help things immeasurably by taking small roles and investing them with the humor and pathos they deserve.
So much of ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ works better than it ought to that the nagging problems popping up throughout are easy to ignore. There’s a juggling act involved with this type of melancholic comedy that seems almost effortless when done right, yet is almost impossible to master. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Jesse Andrews delivered something special here, a dragon that the generation of film school brats weened on ‘Rushmore’ have been chasing for quite some time. It’s somehow one of the sweetest and funniest movies you’ll see this year, while also offering some genuine harsh truths and hanky-worthy downbeats that never feel cheap.
It ain’t perfect, but ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ already feels like a film destined to pop up on many “Best Of” lists at the year’s end. See it soon before the hype spoils the fun.