Antoine and Colette (Short Film)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of my favorite films is Francois Truffaut’s 1959 masterpiece, “The 400 Blows,” about a troubled kid named Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would appear in more Truffaut films to follow). Even though I knew Truffaut made four follow-ups to the film, showing the boy grow into adulthood, I wasn’t in a huge hurry to seek them out because the ending to “The 400 Blows” practically demanded I decide for myself what the future held for this poor boy who had already ticked off his parents, committed petty crime, and ran away from juvenile hall.

But you can’t blame me for being curious. It’d be like only watching the first entry in Michael Apted’s “7-Up” documentary series and not knowing in the slightest how much Suzy had changed. So, I checked out “Antoine and Colette,” a 29-minute short film Truffaut made just a few years after “The 400 Blows.”

It’s nice to know Antoine is trying to better himself. Now 18 and living a life of (mostly-) solitude,  he supports himself by manufacturing LPs at the Philips factory in Paris. He still has an artistic, poetic edge to himself that was introduced in “The 400 Blows”—he still goes to the movies and he listens to opera and classical music. (He also spends time with Rene, a friend from “The 400 Blows.” We get a flashback to remind us of their friendship.) And Leaud still nails the part wonderfully; it’s like he and Truffaut shared a deep connection in how the character should develop. (I especially like an opening scene in which he wakes up one morning and reaches on his nightstand for a hardly disposed cigarette to smoke.)

One night at a musical concert, Antoine spots Colette (Marie-France Pisier), a slightly-older, beautiful woman, with whom he falls in love. They share a nice friendship, and Antoine is adored by Colette’s parents (who seem much better to be around than Antoine’s own parents, with whom he doesn’t seem to communicate anymore). He even moves into a place across from Colette and her family, to literally get closer to the woman he loves. But does she love him? Like most young loves, it’s hard to tell when emotions are clearly expressed to one another. He can’t take this mind game anymore and lets her know how she feels, and…well, the ending is true, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.

Now that Antoine is older and independent (and alive), he can start going through the emotions that all young adult men face, such as unrequited love. And because the character is so charming, and Truffaut obviously had an affection for him (and people have speculated that Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego), I can’t help but hope for the best while also want to let him know somehow that things are going to be OK and it happens to us all.

After this short came three feature films that continued to keep up with Antoine’s life: “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” I may check those out too…maybe.

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Minding the Gap (2018)

25 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It figures that in 2018, a year with three fine indie films about skateboarders (“Skate Kitchen,” “Minding the Gap,” and “Mid90s”), the best of them would be the lone documentary, “Minding the Gap.” “Skate Kitchen” and “Mid90s” succeeded by evoking realism, while “Minding the Gap” simply captures it. By default, I suppose that makes it the best (although I know it can be argued that it’s much trickier to bring about natural realism in fiction)—when you know what’s happening on-camera is happening to real people, and you’re invested in their personal lives, it’s all the more impressive. And “Minding the Gap” works particularly because it introduces us to some of the most interesting film characters of 2018. And they’re real.

Some people need an outlet for their turmoils and frustrations. For the ones in “Minding the Gap,” that outlet is skateboarding. They go skating in the park. They go skating in the street. They trespass on private property just for the thrill of skating in places they’re not supposed to. And they’re good at it, because they’ve practiced it since childhood. Sure, they slip and fall every now and again, but they get right back up and keep going. (Obvious metaphor, I know.) But who are they off the boards?

Zack Mulligan has the bad-boy vibe that adds to his charm and charisma. But when he’s drunk or stoned, that’s when his persona turns surly, disturbed, and violent. He’s married and has a baby son, and it’s very clear to us (and his wife) that he’s unfit to be a parent. He cares for his child, but he has trouble with the responsibility. And he’s too much for his wife, Nina, to bear as well, and the feeling’s mutual. One of the heavier moments in the film is when we learn that Zack has physically abused Nina, having escalated from a loud argument. A revealing moment in the film is when Zack states to the camera that “bitches” need to be hit from time to time…

Kiere Johnson supports his single mother by working as a dishwasher. He still suffers the emotional scars brought on by abuse long ago, and he tries to control his own anger issues. (An example of his anger goes back to childhood, as seen in a home-movie in which he spends a good amount of time breaking a skateboard for spite.)

Bing Liu is the film’s director, and these two (Zack and Kiere) are his best friends since childhood (which means they’re more than comfortable being documented by his cameras all the time). Bing has his issues too, which are brought up as he interviews his immigrant mother about a time during which his stepfather abused him. (Domestic abuse is a common theme in this film, as it’s a common theme in all their lives.) The most emotional moment comes when the mother tearfully tells her son she should have been more aware of things back then.

Bing, Zack, and Kiere have been friends since middle school through their love of skateboarding, and it’s clear that Bing is saying that they skate to feel the freedom they wish they had all the time. It is not just a hobby to them. All three of them live in Rockford, Illinois, which like most small towns, is depressing, poor, and dying. But they carry on because they feel they have no alternative.

Bing’s camera captures everything effectively, the editing is fantastic, the music score is suitably low-key and somber, and we have four people (Bing, Zack, Kiere, Nina) whose lives we’re invested in because we desperately want things to turn out better for them in the future. But in the end, you realize “Minding the Gap” was Bing’s way for his friends to express themselves, and I think that’s a very good start.

The film is available on Hulu.

Private Life (2018)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Film-school students (or at least, aspiring screenwriters) could learn the “write-what-you-know” methods simply from watching Tamara Jenkins’ personal comedy-drama “Private Life.” I’m assuming everything the characters are undergoing/discussing in the film is based on personal experience. (After all, this is only Jenkins’ third film in 20 years and her first since 2007’s “The Savages.” Why come back for a project about a topic she wouldn’t know anything about?) I’ve seen this film five times since its release on Netflix a few months ago, and each time I see it, I’m fascinated by the amount of technical detail brought into the subject of IVF—or rather, the subject of the ups and downs of IVF. Probably because it’s barely even touched upon in any film I can think of.

“Private Life” focuses on a middle-aged married couple, Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who desperately want to have a child. They try pretty much everything they can think of, including artificial insemination, vitro fertilisation, and other expensive methods they come across, just to reassure themselves that they’re trying to have a child by any means necessary. They even tried adoption at one point, only to be sadly let down by an out-of-town pregnant teenager who stopped contacting them after numerous FaceTime chats. They try everything they can think of, and this is where the comedy and drama blend wonderfully—because it’s played so realistically with two appealing, good-natured people, you laugh because you find ways to relate to their situation.

If Jenkins herself hasn’t gone through any of the things Richard and Rachel have tried (though I’m assume she relates to it one way or another), then she’s clearly done her research in exploring the plight real-life couples go through in this situation. The way she portrays it in the film generates sympathy.

Anyway, Richard and Rachel are visited by their 25-year-old niece, Sadie (wonderfully played by Kayli Carter with a neat blend of perkiness and confusion). She’s a college-writing student who gets to finish the program in absentia, and she gets to stay with Richard and Rachel, with whom she’s very close. They decide to ask Sadie for her eggs, as they’ve also decided to inseminate Rachel with a donor egg. She agrees, which leads to yet another tough process on the road to hopefully resulting in a child Richard and Rachel can call their own, even though the sometimes-bright, otherwise-naive-and-immature Sadie is already becoming their surrogate daughter as time goes by.

At two hours and four minutes, the film moves slowly, which for most quiet character pieces/slices of life can lead to moments of sagging that probably could have been trimmed or edited out. But to be fair, I think that’s an effective way for Jenkins to tell her audience to pay close attention to what these characters are doing, notice their plight, and learn some new things about something that some people may see as an easy process (which now I know it’s definitely not). I appreciate that.

Part of the film’s success, aside from the utterly brilliant acting from all three principals (and supporting actors such as Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch as Sadie’s unsure parents—this is the best film work I’ve ever seen from Shannon), is the tone. As with Jenkins’ previous film, “The Savages,” “Private Life” is told with a sardonic tone that is just right for the material. Jenkins wants us to feel for the characters, and she knows the best way to reach the audience is with comedy. But most importantly, the comedy is only effective if Jenkins keeps it at a grounded level—this way, we’re not laughing at the characters so much as laughing because we know what these numerous absurdities and setbacks feel like in any pressing scenario. (Though, a few tears are more appropriate than laughs.)

Whatever you think happens in “Private Life” is only because you’ve seen so many films that you think you can expect anything conventional. But you’d be wrong—the story is not told in a conventional sense in which it’s easy to figure the outcome by the final act. That was another pleasant surprise about the film: the final act is extraordinary in the way it tells us that whatever end may occur in this long, hard process, what’s more important is how these people react to it and move on in life. Speaking of which, how does “Private Life” end? On a hopeful note? On a bitter note? It’s for us to decide. I really like this film, and I look forward to Jenkins’ next film in the future.

Southside With You (2016)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” is a sweet romance about the most important of dates in any relationship: a first date. It may not seem so important while it’s happening, of course, but when there’s a second date and a third and maybe even a long-term committed relationship that comes from it. There may be other times that couples look back on with more fondness, but deep down, they know that “first date” was the most special time in their lives.

Set in 1989, “Southside With You” is about two young adults who work in a Chicago law firm. He’s a Harvard Law student working for the summer as an associate for the firm. And she’s his advisor, a hard-working young lawyer. He invites her to a community-organizing meeting, picks her up, and, well…it doesn’t start for a couple more hours, and he also invites her to see some exhibits at a local art center…and maybe get a bite to eat too. “This is not a date,” she informs him. “Until you say it is,” he assures her.

She’s not looking for a relationship with a coworker, particularly him. She’s black; he’s black; she’s concerned about what her coworkers might think. “How’s it gonna look if I start dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors?” she says. “It would be tacky.”

His response? “You think I’m cute?”

Thus is the start of a will-they-or-won’t-they day in which these two brilliant, motivated, likable individuals get to know one another a little more and enjoy being in each other’s company. They spend the whole day talking about numerous topics, including art, family, empathy for others, idealisms, even “Good Times” (“DYNOMITE!”) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (which they go see at a movie theater together). He learns there’s more to her than a highly-motivated young African-American woman who fights to be taken seriously at the firm, which is mostly dominated by older white men. After hearing him speak at the community meeting, she realizes his full potential as a public speaker. They realize qualities in one another that they truly admire.

And their conversations are fun and interesting to listen to, with dialogue written by Tanne, and they’re also wonderfully acted, by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. They both give immensely charming performances as two ambitious young people who might just be perfect for each other.

And just who are these two people, you may ask? Well, maybe if I share their names, you might have some idea as to who they are: Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. That’s right—“Southside With You” is about the first date between the First Couple of 2008-2016 in the summer of 1989. But it’s not a political statement (though that’s not to say political affiliates won’t see it as such), nor may it be entirely factual (though I do wonder what the Obamas themselves think of this film), nor are there any obvious foreshadowing lines of dialogue such as, “Wow, Barack, you should go into politics!” (Not even a single “Yes We Can” is uttered once.) It’s first and foremost a romance; a first date between two charming, brilliant young people that may escalate into something more. (And it makes the film even more charming when you remember what happens with the characters’ real-life counterparts later on down the road.) And as such, it’s successful.

With a unique, nearly-perfect blend of hot-topic debates and emotional realizations of the past, all of which is shared between two interesting characters, “Southside With You” is a nice (albeit idealized) little romance that gives me a relationship about which I can care and by which I am intrigued. Even if it weren’t the future POTUS and his wife, I’d still follow these two. And that’s a high compliment to how well-realized they are. This is a sweet film.

Antiquities (2019)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“There’s a feature-length film that could be made with the material in ‘Antiquities.’” –an excerpt from my review of Daniel Campbell’s short film “Antiquities,” April 2013.

Here’s another: “Writer-director Daniel Campbell is obviously so intelligent a filmmaker that he’s able to get laughs by just everyday quirkiness […] it’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.”

Can I just rewrite that as my closing thoughts for Campbell’s recently released feature-length adaptation?

I loved the short. It was very funny in how eccentric it could make its characters, particularly the awkward lead (played wonderfully by Jason Thompson), which made the elevating genuine sweetness all the more moving and weirdly profound. It was about an odd person gaining enough self-confidence to begin a different direction in life, despite the sometimes-intentional/otherwise-benign efforts of his equally quirky co-workers (including one particular a-hole named Blundale, played by Roger Scott) at an antique mall to hold him back.

So, needless to say, I was more than curious to see what the same writer-director (Daniel Campbell) could do with a feature. For one thing, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t bring back the same eccentricities of the supporting characters from his short; for his feature, he introduces new eccentricities, by which maybe I shouldn’t be surprised (yet I am pleasantly surprised). Second thing is, whereas the short was about stepping outside of the image the protagonist was afflicted with, the feature is more about a modern-day everyman finding ways to relate to the eccentric people with whom he had acquainted himself. I had a feeling this would work, and it did. The feature version of “Antiquities,” of course given the same title as the short, is endearingly strange in the most identifiable way.

Having lost his father, a young man named Walt (Andrew J. West) moves back to his small Southern hometown to live with his cheerful aunt and uncle (Melanie Haynes and Jeff Bailey) and gain employment at the antique mall where his dad used to work. He’s a mild mannered kid who sincerely wants to step into his father’s shoes (both figuratively and literally; he wears his father’s old boots to work) and walk around and get acquainted with his old co-workers. In the process, he’ll learn more about his father, about the people he knew, about himself, and how people behave in the names of self-discovery and dealing with pain.

If you like indie “dramedies” with quirky supporting characters, you’ll get a kick out of the cast of eccentric folks here. Entire films could be made about the people who work at this antique mall, such as Blundale (Roger Scott, reprising his role from the original short, more or less), the sumbitch who, when he isn’t making his coworkers’ lives miserable, likes to stage Civil War battles to his own liking through dioramas; or Jimmy Lee (Graham Gordy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campbell), the oddball whose booth resembles his childhood living room during Christmastime (and nothing in his booth is for sale); or Dolores Jr. (Michaela Watkins), the neurotic with self-image issues; or Dewey Ray (Troy Hogan), the general manager who is married to Blundale’s mother; or Delaney (Michael Gladis), a heavyset man who is more talk than action; or the shrink (Mary Steenburgen in two very funny scenes) whose parrot senses narcissism; or the obligatory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ellie (Ashley Greene), who behaves irrationally while also grieving the loss of her cherished brother. (An example of Ellie’s character: on a date with Walt, she sneaks them into a closed amusement park, tricks him onto a ride, and then turns it on while laughing maniacally… I can’t say I recall that happening to me, despite going out with quite a few loony ladies back in the day, but if it did, I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her again.)

You get my point. But I will continue by saying that while I’m tired of seeing people like this in many recent indie flicks, it was this film that made me realize that I got tired of them because they didn’t feel like real people so much as writer’s constructs to maintain some type of identity. I could see people I knew in these characters; some of the time, I could even see myself in one or two of these characters. And that’s the key difference. You feel that these people are going through their own confusions in life, and while you may be initially put off by some of them, you gain somewhat of an idea as to why they are the way they are. Even Ellie, who I was ready to brush off as too good to be true, became a more interesting character as the film progressed.

Oh, and Jason Thompson is in the feature too, although he doesn’t play the same role as in the short. I feel obligated to report that. (He plays Walt’s cousin.)

So, because the supporting cast is so memorably quirky, you’d think that Andrew J. West, as the Joe Blow protagonist, would seem bland by comparison. On the contrary. I think it’s because he was playing an everyman reacting to the oddness of these people that I kept chuckling at his facial expressions while also wondering what he might be thinking during those moments. (Or maybe it’s just that I would react the same way if I were in his shoes—er, “boots.”)

“Antiquities” is a delightfully observant comedy that taught me not to jump to any conclusions, whatever they might be. And if I may be even more honest here, just writing about those memorable characters made me want to see the film again. The film is available on demand (I rented it from Amazon Prime and I’ll probably purchase it in the near future); I highly recommend you check it out wherever you can, because “Antiquities” is a nice little treasure. It’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.

(Wait, that sounded familiar…)

Revisiting: Midnight Special

5 Jan

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by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and “Loving.” I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release two years ago? Once.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? About eight or nine. Maybe ten.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I’ll give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.”

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Movies like “The Dirties,” “Whiplash,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Tex,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Last Detail,” “Frances Ha”–all of these are among my favorite films now, and I wouldn’t have guessed upon first seeing them! They knew they were good…I didn’t know they’d become my faves!

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. His previous films–“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”–are among my favorites, and I find myself thinking…I might actually like “Midnight Special” MORE than “Mud!” (And Midnight Special didn’t even make my best-films-of-2016 list!!)

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when “10 Cloverfield Lane” ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as a savior, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised him and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years–something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Maybe someday, I’ll give “Midnight Special” the “Revised Review With Spoilers” treatment so that I can give a detailed analysis about what I think it all means, and thus, I can go into why I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

And maybe I should give Loving another viewing and “Revisit” it sometime soon…

Revisiting: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

4 Jan

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by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!!!

What is the purpose of my “Revised Reviews”? To express new thoughts about a particular film that are different from what I initially had. That’s the beauty of continually watching films–while the films themselves don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. We can praise films for being great and then in good time they can become some of our favorites. Or we can think less of them as time goes by. My personal favorite type of film is one I think is “OK” or “fine” at first but then gets better and better with each viewing, to the point where I can call it a “favorite.”

This is probably why it was a mistake to publicly post about my Top 250 Favorite Movies. Maybe the Top 100 was enough. Creating the Next Top 150 only meant many other films wouldn’t slip in over time. (Hell, there may even be a couple films that could sneak into the Top 100 over time. See what I mean?)

Anyway, I gave three stars to a 2015 indie comedy-drama called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and now I’d give it three-and-a-half. This is after watching it countless times since it was released.

How many three-star reviews have I written for movies that eventually ended up on my personal-favorites list? I’ve lost count.

Seriously, there’s The Dirties, Gremlins, The Monster Squad, Dazed and Confused, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, among others, that I’ve initially rated a measly 3 stars out of 4.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t in my Top 250…but it might be in the Top 400 (if ever I make one…which I won’t…publicly…). But why?

While I praised the acting from the leads, the charming atmosphere, and the revealing bittersweet ending, I complained very much about two other things–I called them Excessive Comic Relief and Kind of Aware But Not Quite. For the former, I was referring to the side comedic characters (particularly those played by Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon) who seemed like they were there because there wasn’t enough comedy already given by the droll commentating lead character, his wisecracking best friend, their natural appeal & chemistry together, and especially the amateur home movies they make. (This is always my pet peeve in independent dramedies–a lot of them seem to have quirky side characters for the sake of…having quirky side characters.)

And yes, I’ve read the book this film is based on, written by Jesse Andrews who also penned the screenplay for this film adaptation. These characters work a little better in the book, but only slightly.

And for the latter, I was referring to the characters pointing out that they’re partaking in cliches that were done in other movies involving teenage friendships–just because you say you’re doing something doesn’t make it any different.

But I did mention a lot of the things that I did like about the film, hence the three-star recommendation. How was I supposed to know I would end up watching the film several times after, just for the things I really like about it?

What has grown on me with subsequent viewings? Well, for one, there’s the dialogue. I know I harped on a lot of the self-awareness of the characters, which much of the voiceover narration focuses upon, but when we actually get to see these kids as regular high-school kids, they sound very authentic (with a lot of intentionally awkward “uhs” and “ums” and stammers here or there) and have a lot to say. And as such, they’re not only likable–they’re real.

That’s another thing I like about the film: the lead characters are great! Greg (Thomas Mann) goes through a brilliant character arc in which he learns that he needs friendship in his life, and Earl (R.J. Cyler) knows he and Greg have been friends the whole time (even though Greg won’t acknowledge it) and ultimately becomes the one that has to talk sense to Greg. They make films and they go to high school, where they have very little social status, but they don’t take it all so seriously. And the more I watch the film, the more I realize how unserious they are in their filmmaking…and when you think about all the pretentious analyses we get from filmmakers and film scholars, especially from the indie film circuit nowadays, seeing these kids treat their films this way makes me smile.

Then there’s Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the titular dying girl. Critics complained that she’s more of an “idea” than a “person,” much like the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope…THAT’S THE IDEA! We’re not supposed to know the real her–we’re supposed to get an idea of her: Greg’s idea. That way, when Greg realizes there’s so much more he could’ve known about her, it’s all the more tragic.

And I also like that it’s a film about friendship. It’s a film about a teenage boy and girl who form a relationship, but at no point are the two romantically linked. Maybe they could’ve been, if they had taken the time to get to know each other more and decided to take another risky step further. But then again, maybe they would’ve been fine as just friends. That’s not something you would expect in your average teen film, but there you are–this is not your average teen film. It’s better than that.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got high honors at the Sundance Film Festival; it’s a shame it didn’t get higher praise for Oscar season (like Best Adapted Screenplay?). And for good reason–despite the heavy subject material of an awkward boy befriending a cancer-patient girl, the story is told effectively with useful benefits, instead of resorting to melodrama. It takes realistic characters and forces them to ask questions about themselves–about what they must go through at this crossroads in life, how they must react when someone is in turmoil, how useful they can be in certain situations, etc. and so on.

And the more times I watch this film, the more I think about THAT rather than the things I complain about.

To conclude, I also love this dialogue exchange, after Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned (don’t ask): GREG: You can’t tell them we’re on drugs. EARL: Why not? (pause) GREG: Because then they’ll know.

That line (“Because then they’ll know.”) makes me cry with laughter each time I hear it.