Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

10 Oct

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I might use this review as an opportunity to write about two pet peeves I have with some recent quirky, independent comedy-dramas. One is what I like to call Kind of Aware But Not Quite; that’s when a film is so self-aware of itself that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché. The other is Excessive Comic Relief: desperate side characters thrown in by screenwriters who don’t think the comic relief they have already isn’t funny enough—these people tend to A) appear as if they’ve come from another planet of social skills, B) distract away from the plot & leads, as if they should have a movie of their own, and C) are not very funny. (There’s also D) all of the above.)

It may seem a little odd that I’m going into these pet peeves in a review of a movie I like rather than a movie I dislike, but I decided to because…I came close to disliking “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” This film has its heart in the right place, is visually interesting, and has a fresh, engaging trio of young people to focus on. It’s also a little too self-indulgent and features some strange, off-putting side characters that I’m sure are funny to some but just strange to me. (But hey, it apparently worked for everyone at Sundance, seeing as how it received the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.) But honestly, after watching this film twice, the material I like, I find I really like. It makes up for some of the things I find off-putting in this film.

Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the screenplay), “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” centers on a high-school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s narcissistic, socially awkward, has little to no ambition in life, is very neutral on school grounds (so he doesn’t make any friends or enemies), and is a classic-film lover. He also makes bad home movies, which are parodies of classics (for example, “Brew Vervet” for “Blue Velvet”), with his only friend, Earl (R.J. Cyler), whom he doesn’t label as his “friend” even though they’ve known each other since kindergarten.

Greg’s classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), is diagnosed with leukemia. Greg hardly knows her, but his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) insists that he pay her a visit. With his honest, offbeat, oddly charming manner, he manages to get through Rachel’s defenses and soon enough, they become close friends. One of the best things about this film is the relationship between Greg and Rachel. It’s not romantic; it’s platonic and very sincere. It starts out awkward (though believably so) and gets better for them along the way. You could argue that maybe they do love each other, but their interaction and bond is stronger than that in terms of friendship, and we never even see them kiss. What makes it all the more interesting and tragic is that Rachel needs a close friend or some kind of emotional asset now that her mortality is more seeming than ever. Greg doesn’t know it, but he needs one too.

The underlying drama is the best part of the film, but some of the comedy works well too. I laughed at a few lines of dialogue and some situations (such as when Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned at school). What don’t work so well for me are the captions that tell us which scene we’re in (for example, “The Part I Meet a Dying Girl”) and how deep we are into the “Doomed Friendship,” as Greg (our narrator) labels it. The film borders on being too cute for its own good; using voiceover narration, Greg also winks at clichés the film inevitably uses—it doesn’t really work, especially when it tries to make something predictable unpredictable. And then there are the “characters” of Greg’s weird father (Nick Offerman, often a victim of the Excessive Comic Relief—when will he find a good movie role?) who moseys about the house in his robe, cooking up strange meals; Greg’s mother who is so overbearing that it’s kind of humorous (which I guess is the point); and Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon), who would be more interesting if we got more of a sense of how she feels about her daughter dying but is instead a strange woman who’s often with a drink in her hand and lusts over Greg at first sight, calling him “delicious” and “yummy.”

What does work in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the interaction between Greg and Rachel, Greg and Earl, and Greg, Rachel, and Earl (though all three don’t get that much screen time together as a unit). Their dialogue sounds natural, their offbeat personalities are appealing, and their performances are very strong. Thomas Mann plays Greg almost like the complete opposite of who John Hughes was looking for in a high-school teen; the “anti-Ferris-Bueller” who doesn’t want to be noticed and wants to live in his own world without any worries or fears or even ambitions. When he gets an awakening, it feels less than artificial and forced, and it’s to Mann’s credit that he’s able to make us feel when he realizes something unique. Also, He’s not afraid to make Greg even unlikable at times, but he never loses sympathy and he’s always believable. “Believable” is also too big of an understatement to describe Olivia Cooke’s performance as “the dying girl.” She’s more credible than many cancer patients I’ve seen in movies and is very charming as well. The terrific newcomer R.J. Cyler starts out as central comic relief (comic relief that is essential to the movement of the plot and the growth of the lead character) and develops into something more as the story continues. God bless Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon, but they never felt believable to me, especially in comparison to these three fine young actors.

The look and feel of this film reminds me of a Wes Anderson production in the way the camera moves or where it is placed, and that really works, especially when the film is being “cute.” It’s a good balance that makes the overall film charming. It’s when I mention the look that I realize it’s a film that really wants me to like it and tries everything to win me over, and I just can’t help myself.

Without giving the ending away (though you probably know the inevitable result), it hammers in effectively the importance of friendship and ambition, and it delivers a true wakeup call for Greg (and without dialogue too). It’s sad, but the film really earned its sadness by this point.

Oh, and of course, I can’t forget to talk about the home movies made by Greg and Earl. Glimpses of them are seen here and there, and they are brilliant! That’s all I’ll say about it.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” may suffer from Kind of Aware But Not Quite and Excessive Comic Relief, but it has strengths apart from them. It’s charming, has winning lead characters, is well-directed by Alfonso Romez-Rejon, is well-constructed, and has more than enough for me to recommend despite my pet peeves.

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