'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' a Dream Come True
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Sundance champion is a tonally nuanced and visually inventive work
Carlos Aguilar, SydneysBuzz
Originally published at IndieWire. Republished by permission.
Published on LatinoLA: June 12, 2015
This is the part where this writer attempts to eloquently describe his stirring experience with a film that redefined his notion of what a coming-of-age story could be. There is a boy, a girl, a sidekick, high school politics, and many of the adolescent insecurities and yearnings that come with the territory, but what's unexpectedly striking are the stylistic and dramatic sensibilities with which these ingredients are manipulated to assemble a transcendent reinvention. Laughter and tears flow in a continuum of brilliantly executed emotional turns that are hard to shake off even months after the first viewing.
Behind "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" are inspired debutant author Jesse Andrews, who penned both the original novel and its screen version, and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon - whose bulk of work prior to this project was in television and as a second unit director. Their tonally nuanced and visually inventive collaboration resulted in a fascinating work that's nothing short of a cinephile's dream come true. Surely one of the year's best films and by far the best young-adult fiction adaption of the decade. This tragicomedy invokes tropes from a familiar realm and deconstructs or tailors them to the uniquely poignant circumstances of it's characters.
Awkwardly concerned with superficially knowing everyone at school but not truly knowing anyone at all, Greg (Thomas Mann) is a 17-year-old high school senior that has mastered the art of blending in and avoiding developing meaningful relationships that could compromise his wallflower status. He is equally self-deprecating about his talents and his appearance, but efficiently conceals this uneasiness beneath witty remarks and his acerbic sense of humor. Overcoming a stint of raunchy comedies and other forgettable endeavors, Mann ultimately gets a shot at a richly layered role that demanded a camouflaged vulnerability, which eventually becomes visible as his defense mechanisms give in to intimacy.
Using Andrew's hometown of Pittsburgh, and more specifically the house he grew up in and the high school he attended, as principal locations in Greg's life, the director creates even more of a profound connection between the source material and his vision. Adorned with an assortment of film-related paraphernalia, such as a "400 Blows" poster or a copy of Gomez-Rejon's favorite book "Scorsese on Scorsese," Greg's room is a shrine to medium. Such interest was encouraged by his father, played by the reliably amusing Nick Offerman, who is a flamboyant lover of exotic foods and art house titles that introduced him to great filmmakers like Werner Herzog at an early age.
Opposing this parenting approach is the boy's mother (Connie Britton), a substantially more traditional figure who hopes he'll become a well-rounded adult in time for college. In her efforts to do this, Greg's mother pushes him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate that has just been diagnosed with cancer. Greg's not pleased with the idea, but with time their initially forced hang out sessions evolve into a form of companionship and support neither of them anticipated.
Rachel has leukemia, and there is no way to entirely diminish how that weights on Greg, but she is never reduced to a defeated or pitiful token to coerce compassion out of the viewer. Yes, the possibility of tragedy, of lost promise, of truncated youth, is latent, but cancer is always boldly affronted and never shied away from in a didactic manner. Tactfully, yet certainly with the intention of posing some sharp questions about the way those who are ill are treated and perceived, the film depicts Rachel's transition from a lively girl to a physically fragile cancer patient with an authentic range of emotions and avoiding formulaic over-sentimentalism.
Cooke and Mann are on the same wavelength and the charming complicity between the two young stars is evident. Still, there is no doubt that in the crucial, most affecting sequences the actress' performance stands out as she conveys the character's powerlessness and anger towards the cards she's been dealt. Her friendship is a precious gift for Greg to figure out who he wants to become and to bet on sympathy over isolation. To know that the boy's primordial interest is not to get the girl is fantastically refreshing. It decisively confirms that this is not a touching romantic tale but a film about a more intricate and untainted type of affection.
To balance out the heightened emotional heaviness as the narrative develops and to provide an assertive counterpart to Greg's self-doubt, the third variant in this equation, Earl (RJ Cyler), blesses every scene with pragmatic, comedic observations and outrageously straightforward lines. The somewhat unbreakable toughness with glimpses of a softer side that newcomer Cyler brings, is what makes Earl a peculiarly charismatic buddy. While Greg - afraid of labeling any interaction with anyone around him - introduces Earl as a coworker, these two are almost family. Growing up in a rougher neighborhood just across from Greg's side of town, Earl spent most of his childhood discovering film with his friend and eventually making them.
Their oeuvre is comprised of spoof films that reshape classics of World Cinema into hilariously juvenile and cheaply made treasures from the mind of a pair of outcasts who, like many of us, find refuge in the art form's ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary. Gems like "2:38 PM Cowboy," "Pooping Tom," "Monorash" or "A Box O' Lips Wow" exemplify the pure joy of making movies without any agenda or ulterior pretension. In Greg and Earl's purposeless, yet passionate craftsmanship, both Andrews and Gomez-Rejon see their profound connection to the films they love validated and perpetuated on screen. These ridiculous little homages are as entertaining and original as the feature itself because their vibrant and precisely designed to be memorable - they are awesome.
Whether is entering a "subhuman" state to ignore annoying conversations, hallucinating creepy characters, dealing with a war zone called cafeteria, or spending time with his secretly wise teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), Greg's existence is a puzzle glued together by his fear of rejection. He makes films but never lets anyone see them worried about what they'll think, he has a friend but doesn't dare to call him a friend, and he refuses to accept he has the potential to become something greater even when everyone else points it out. It's only when he realizes that entirely devoting his time for someone else's happiness can be an exponentially more fulfilling and transformative adventure than selfishly hiding away, that Greg grows. The kindhearted and sincere nature of the filmmaking showcased in "Me and Earl" elevates the story even at times that could have been faulted as excessively twee if handled by a different artist.
Broad and unimaginably coherent in his use of various techniques - including a number of claymation sequences that express Greg's conviction that beautiful girls have the inherent power to shatter a young man's life into smithereens - Gomez-Rejon direction is award-worthy on all counts. Not only did he channel his own cinematic obsessions through the elaborate and awe-inspiring production design, but he also used this film to process loss in his own life by dedicating it to his father. The incredible significance of it all is reflected in every creative aspect he commanded from Chung-hoon Chung's colorful cinematography, to David Trachtenberg's meticulous editing, and, of course, the cast's honest commitment. Putting that much heart into a project can't go unnoticed.
With a non-verbal sequence highlighted by Brian Eno's subtly industrial and evocative score, the film finally hits you with full force and very few resist the urge to surrender to the overwhelming tenderness of a moment that's simultaneously hopeful, shattering, and strikingly visual. By honoring life, celebrating artistry, and treasuring every unfolding truth about these characters, Gomez-Rejon took Andrews book and embellished it with a strangely imaginative magic that ingeniously beguiles you to fall in love with every instant of it .
This is, indeed, the part where this writer signs off hoping many others will find "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" as ravishing as he did.