Monday, June 8, 2015

'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' review

Every year at Sundance, one or two films manage to escape the typical labels of the festival to find massive success. Last year, it was Damien Chazelle's drum opera Whiplash and Richard Linklater's 12-year magnum opus Boyhood. While most of the films that premiered at the 2015 festival have still yet to arrive in theaters, in all likelihood, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will be the biggest success story of the festival. Fox Searchlight dropped quite a chunk of change to purchase the distribution rights for this flick at the festival in January and with good reason- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a knockout indie comedy. Quirky, smart and fast-paced with a gorgeously realized emotional core, this is one of the best movies of 2015 so far, and one that could take several of its stars to the next level.


Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is entering his senior year of high school and his goal is to remain as invisible as possible. In his world, to survive high school, you have to be on decent terms with every clique and never do anything to make yourself stick out. His closest friend in high school is Earl (RJ Cyler), who he refers to as a "co-worker" because he's essentially terrified of calling anyone his friend. Greg and Earl work on terrible parodies of classic movies together and spend their days hanging out in the library with their history teacher (Jon Bernthal) at school. But everything in their life will change when Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with cancer.

Greg and Rachel haven't been particularly close in years, but Greg's mom (Connie Britton) forces Greg to spend time with Rachel despite his protests. Over time, the two of them become close and their friendship develops as the year moves on. But as Rachel's condition worsens and Greg's mentality stays the same, Greg and Earl work to construct one last film for Rachel in the hopes of making something meaningful for their friend.


It's tough to summarize Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in a few sentences, because this movie is so much more than a simple story. For starters, it's a beautiful tribute to the power of cinema, and could expose people to several great films. But the magic of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that it makes cinematic magic of its own. The film works as both a witty and energetic comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson, and a genuine, emotional roller-coaster. Its bittersweet approach creates several memorable moments and a few scenes that will go down as iconic. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most surprising films of 2015, because of the way that it flips everything you would expect on its head and creates something truly special.

The spectacular cast certainly helps. Thomas Mann is the heart and soul of this film, providing strong insight into the mind of Greg, but he is assisted by Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler, two bright young actors who do a great job with the material. Cyler is the comic relief of the film, spouting off funny one-liners and profanity-filled (albeit at a PG-13 level) dialogue like it's nobody business. But it's Earl's tender core that really allows Cyler to do a lot with the character. Cooke is able to show a range of emotions as Rachel, and it's a sweet and measured performance. The fact that screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the novel) didn't feel the need to make any sort of romance between Greg and Rachel liberates the film in a way, allowing these characters to do more interesting things than the stereotypical love story would allow.

The focus of the film is really on our three young leads, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon fits just enough time in there to get some great performances out of actors like Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon. Offerman doesn't truly get to do much more than be the weird dad, but it's a funny enough performance. His wife is played by Connie Britton, and she has good chemistry with Mann, as well as some emotional moments that play to the film's strong suits. And Shannon is hysterically sad as Denise, Rachel's alcohol-soaked mother who can't quite cope with her condition. She has plenty of funny moments, but deep down, it's a darker performance.


Jesse Andrews wrote the novel and the screenplay for the film, something that Stephen Chbosky did very well with the adaptation of his novel, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. The interesting thing about Andrews' script is the way that it takes situations and characters that we're used to seeing in these types of Sundance indie comedies, but tweaks them enough that it feels fresh and exciting. And then there's the fact that the movie finds something profound and meaningful about halfway through. It's almost as if Andrews and Gomez-Rejon realize the stupidity of these angsty teen characters and use the movie to help them change. The last movie that did this really well was The Spectacular Now. I think that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fits firmly into that prestigious territory.

Of course, there are plenty of Sundance-y quirks that you can find with this film. The characters are all a bit odd, with little idiosyncrasies and witticisms that seem very cliched on the surface. High school is portrayed as this wasteland of weird people who do weird things. Greg is an angsty guy, who believes that cliques control high school. The music by Nico Mulhy and music producer Brian Eno is pretty offbeat (it's the kind of score you would hear in a Wes Anderson movie). And ultimately, the film's visual style is peculiar- Gomez-Rejon obviously took some cues from Wes Anderson, and it shows throughout the movie.

And that's what has made a lot of people approach Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with a lot of trepidation. People want the visual style of a Sundance movie, but they don't want the empty cliches and stereotypes that run rampant through the indie comedy world. And that's why I think that this film stands out. Because once you reach the second half of the film, the emotional gut punch kicks in and it's something that will send a lot of audiences for a loop.


At a certain point in the movie, you can tell that the tone is changing and the filmmakers handle it with maturity and poise. The film is tragically sad without ever being too sappy. This film is never about the tragic circumstances of death and disease. This is not The Fault in Our Stars 2.0. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about how these events can change the people around us. The focus of the film is never Rachel or her condition. It's always about Greg and how Rachel's illness is impacting his life and changing it to make him a better, more caring person.

What solidified Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's masterpiece status for me was the final act of the film. This isn't a movie that obviously prods at your emotions. While the eulogy scene in The Fault in Our Stars was effective, it was undoubtedly an emotionally manipulative scene. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is much more subtle, settling for a simple power that absolutely devastated me. This final act will rock you and I'll let you discover more about it when you see the film for yourself.

This is one of those special movies that really finds a way to touch your emotions in the right way. With a bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy, a cast that is up for anything and a visual style that works in a quirky way, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an absolute stunner. And there's one scene in there that is simply one of the best that I've seen in recent memory. The film falls into a few traps and cliches, but there's no escaping this film's emotional impact. It's a joy to watch.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)


Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, YouTube, Apple Trailers, USA Today, Hitfix, Flickering Myth

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