24 June, 2015

Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" (****½)

Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke star in "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."

An adaptation of the same-titled novel by Jesse Andrews, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about a self-aware and 'gopher-faced' (his words, not mine) high school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann) who is forced, per his mother’s request, to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who could barely be called an acquaintance, once she’s been diagnosed with cancer. And the result of that first, initial, forced hang-out is… well, it’s magic. And Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction is risky and wild and perfectly on point. He creates a world you want to live in and characters you want to believe in.

Greg narrates his life, walking us through his doomed friendship with Rachel, broken up into chapter-like segments with titles like “The Part Where I Panic Out of Sheer Awkwardness.” Greg drifts untethered through high school, never forming any real relationships. He has curated and smarted a sense of bordered distance and ambiguous accessibility; he never has to become attached to anybody, never has to feel too high or too low. He’s too self-aware and too scared to think that attachments could be lasting. Earl, (newcomer RJ Cyler) who has been a friend of Greg’s since childhood, Greg casually refers to as a 'co-worker.' Together, they create no-budget misinterpretations of arthouse films: “A Sockwork Orange” (“A Clockwork Orange”), “A Box of Lips – Wow!” (“Apocalypse Now”), etc. Earl encourages Greg to make a film for Rachel to honor her life and her valiant fight against cancer. When Greg tries to do that, he struggles with the feelings he’s developed and worked his whole life not to have.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” erupts with innovation, with color, with pure-hearted and inspired emotion. The script (penned by the “Me and Earl...” novel author himself) enlivens the screen. Andrews writes this world that the viewer can’t help but want to be a part of, he writes characters that the viewer can’t help but want to know, and Gomez-Rejon does a beautiful job of interpreting that. The film is entirely cliché-absent, particularly with the dialogue. And the best part: “Me and Earl…” is a pure and honest celebration of film as a storytelling medium; it’s a huge departure from the classic and conventional storytelling we’re used to seeing.

“Me and Earl…” lacks the airy, cloud-like ambiguity that tends to occur when anyone talks about cancer in cinema. Cancer. I mean it’s an all-or-nothing type deal, literally life or death; the stakes are about as high as they’re ever going to get. So in the movies, this sentiment often resonates in an overwhelmingly dramatic fashion, with booming music, sentimental scores, choice close ups, and particular lighting effects to highlight and italicize that dramatic sentiment. But that’s not really the case here. Cancer acts as a secondary character to the wholesome concept of friendship. Sure, the stakes are high. Cancer is as real as it’s ever been, but cancer acts as a platform in which these two characters can connect. Greg is as unwilling to give Rachel pity as she is to accept it, and it’s on that basis that they develop their friendship. This movie is about the relationship (that happens to be nonsexual and entirely platonic, very unlike the notable comparable film “The Fault in Our Stars”) between Greg and Rachel, and even Earl in some periphery respects. It’s refreshing and sharp and swaggers like something authentic. And I think that’s what I most liked about this movie; it ran the risk that people might not like it. It’s very stylized and Gomez-Rejon is intentional with every single choice he makes; you won’t find any platitudes here.

If I had to find a fault in this film (and believe me, I had to dig pretty deep to find it), it’d be with the narrator. I have no problem with Greg as a character; he’s perfectly cast. Mann’s quick wit, charisma and delivery entertain and encourage the rest of the cast—I think the film would have been a lesser version of itself without him as the lead. He’s charismatic and quick-witted and honest as Greg. In fact, I think the casting choices and character evolutions are some of the best things about “Me and Earl…,” but the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) he lied to us, flat out and unapologetically and more than once lessens my love for him. I’m just not sure I understand the point of it. It would have been just as strong a film if they were to leave out the lines where he promises that this cute girl who we’ve all grown to know and love will in fact live. Maybe he’s just being a teenager, and lying is cool and superlative and hyperbole is smooth off the tongue. I think that broaches an interesting idea about what it means to be a reliable narrator—and the effectiveness of the narrator. 

RJ Cyler and Thomas Mann play best friends Earl and Greg.

With a title like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” it’s inevitable that you’re going to end up with tear stained cheeks and a small mountain of tissues surrounding your theatre seat; what you may find surprising, however, is the humor. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is funny, and the depth and range of humor is unexpected and entirely welcome. There’s a pleasant symbiosis between the dramatic and the comedic, and I can’t decide whether the film is a melancholic comedy or a comedic drama… but then again, I suppose I don’t have to.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is exactly what I hope for when I watch a movie. It’s what makes me believe in movies, in storytelling, in the strength and power of imagination. Even as I sit here writing this review three days after having seen it, I can’t help but feel moved by it. It’s a film saturated and seeping in magic and heart. 

4.5 out of 5 stars.

And now I’ll leave you with a quick, interesting note: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” won both the Jury and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was purchased for a record-setting $12 Million by Fox Searchlight for distribution rights. And while I’m noting things, I’d also like to note that I didn’t want to write this review. I mean I volunteered to write it, but I did that prior to watching it. But then I watched it. And then I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to write about it. I wanted to simmer in it. I loved this film so much that I didn’t want to do it a disservice by writing about it. If this review does anything, I hope that it encourages you to watch “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” because it’d sure be a shame if you didn’t.

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