Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Masam Holden
Small role: Hugh Jackman (voice)
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenplay: Jesse Andrews (based on his novel)

Review published May 30, 2015

The buzz of 2015's Sundance Film Festival where it would win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and for good reason, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl emerges as one of the better films of its type I've ever seen, whether we're talking about young-adult fiction or chronic-disease tear-jerkers.  It's a quirky indie film made with studio sensibilities and a solid cast and great production specs, which could carry enough momentum to land a nomination or two come Oscar time in the same way as last year's Sundance darling, Whiplash.  It's a movie that cares about its subject, made by filmmakers that care about filmmaking, lovingly crafted with a Wes Anderson-like flair for detail that makes it one of the richer and more tender films about teenagers in many a year.

Thomas Mann (Welcome to Me, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) stars as Pittsburgh-raised twelfth-grader Greg, who spends most of his days trying to fly under the radar among his peers at school, not trying to fit in so much as to not stand out.  He's longtime friends (or co-workers, he states due to his desire not to commit to anything definitive) with Earl (Cyler, Second Chances).  Together, they spend a good deal of their spare time not only watching classic films, but making their own silly spoof home movies based upon them (echoes of Be Kind Rewind abound).  His mother (Britton, This is Where I Leave You) thinks it's important for him to make a connection, and cajoles him into visiting Rachel (Cooke, Ouija), a fellow classmate he barely knows who has recently been diagnosed with stage four leukemia.  They begrudgingly spend time together, but soon form a unique friendship.  The young men decide to make a film just for Rachel, hoping it will give her the strength she needs for the long and arduous battle ahead.

A feature theatrical TV director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, "American Horror Story"), shot handsomely by Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Stoker, Oldboy -- I love the long takes -- so refreshing and rare in a teen film), this should be the quintessential blueprint from which teen films should draw from in the future in how to balance comedy and drama right, and do it with a sumptuous visual panache that enhances the tone without being truly overbearing and frenetic.  The script by Jesse Andrews is from his own first novel of 2012, which, like most fare that deals with high school, contains colorful characters and some broadly defined cliques, but the richness of the material beyond the archetypical supporting characters that inhabit the bulk of the story is where the true good stuff presides.  It's a heavy subject, but never cloys or becomes stifling in its sadness, and by the end of the movie, it makes you come out of the theater truly appreciating life, as well as the connections with the people we hold dear. 

Nicely cast, Thomas Mann does a wonderful job inhabiting what is an idealized character that you would be hard-pressed to find existing in real life, and yet within the world that Gomez-Rejon and Andrews construct, which seems to be peppered with Greg's peculiar world view, it all makes its own sense, whether realistic or not.  Olivia Cooke seems destined for stardom (or, at least, a Tim Burton film), and certainly takes a step in a better direction here than in the weak horror films she's been appearing in thus far in her career.  While she is far too pretty to buy as being some sort of ugly duckling, she does carry the weight of the subtle poignancy of the part very well.  And, thankfully, she never overdoes the role for cheap theatrics -- not that Gomez-Rejon is really interested in tearjerker moments beyond the bittersweet experience of a rich and promising life potentially being snuffed out before it could truly blossom into something special.

It's probably not a huge surprise that critics and film festival fanatics would eat this up.  After all, a good part of the storyline involves great classic films and their makers, especially Werner Herzog, along with Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, and other giants in filmdom.  Surely, any movie this cinema literate is going to tap right into the minds of movie lovers, and some of that will likely be lost on more mainstream audiences who may not get all of the references to the various spoofs on films that the young men are recreating.  it also strains believability a bit to see 17-year-olds choose to watch Burden of Dreams or Seconds, without going to film school first.  I suppose they could exist, somewhere, but it's so rare that even a lifelong film lover like me hasn't come across any like Greg or Earl.  But, if this film lights a fire in teens to give them a shot, it's worth the narrative indulgence, especially as this is a film about finding hidden gems of expression, and the reward for those who are diligent enough to actively seek them out.

Though it's a quirky, romanticized look at one's teenage years from the vantage point of a learned and educated adult, there are too many interesting themes and touching contemplative moments to not be won over by the absorbing experience, especially in the clever and thoughtful presentation from a truly wonderful Gomez-Rejon.  If you enjoy teenage films with serious subtext like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which is also set in Pittsburgh) and The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one not to be missed, because it outshines them all in so many rewarding ways.  Plus, it's fitfully witty as well.  Idealized though it may be, it's about as honest a film about the melancholia not only of dealing with terminal diseases but also the angst-filled days of youth as there is in the theaters.  It's the kind of movie that, fittingly given the themes, keeps unfolding in your mind, long after the end credits roll by.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo