Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
Photo by Anne Marie Fox – © 2015 – Fox Searchlight

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won two prestigious awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (Grand Jury and Audience Awards). But does the movie genuinely live up to the Festival’s accolades?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Far from the sappy, oft-used formula of budding teen love tragically interrupted, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl serves up a marvelous piece of cinema with equal parts humor and emotion, delivering a surprisingly fresh take on graduating high-schoolers in all their genuine angst. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story, Glee) cleverly weaves in bits of animation and sheer silliness throughout, managing to poke pinpricks of light into this rather dark comedy. And kudos to author Jesse Nelson who, as a first-time screenwriter, took on the adaptation of his 2013 young-adult novel himself (mentored by producer Dan Fogelman, screenwriter of Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tangled; and Cars).

The irreverent title suggests that this movie may smash our preconceptions. And so it does, focusing on oddballs who fail and fall and eventually figure out how to carry on, trying to hone in on the perfect spot in their own specific universe.

The prime oddball is protagonist Greg (Thomas Mann). The film opens on him staring into a computer screen, struggling to write his story as an imaginary masked harpist plays in the corner of his room, accompanying his frustration. Greg then escorts us into the next scene, touring us through the fraught halls of his high school as he delivers funny, incisive snapshots of all the disparate clique kingdoms. He’s crafted a clever plan of survival: he pretends to be a friend to all as he keeps a low profile, maintaining a safe distance from any real engagement. He’s a veritable Teflon boy, his primary goal being that of deflection. He even introduces his long-time compadre Earl as a “co-worker” rather than admitting to having any ties to a bona fide best friend.

(l to r): Thomas Mann, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton
Photo by Anne Marie Fox – © 2015 – Fox Searchlight

However, his M.O. unravels when his mother (Connie Britton) insists that he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia. When he shows up on her doorstep, he’s awkward and she’s annoyed, assuming he’s visiting out of pity. She tries to dismiss him but Greg presses on, admitting the truth that it’s not pity but the fact that his mother is making him do it. Hostile at first, Rachel finds herself unexpectedly charmed by his inordinately strange sense of humor and, to their mutual surprise, they begin a faltering friendship.

One of the delights of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the inclusion of Greg’s and Earl’s hobby as self-admitted terrible filmmakers who make ridiculous shorts that riff on classic cinema. Their punny, 42-picture oeuvre includes: 2:48 PM Cowboy, A Sockwork Orange, My Dinner with Andre the Giant, The Complete Lack of Conversation, and A Box O’Lips, Wow. The intermittent snippets of these parodies not only amuse us, but give Rachel a severe case of the giggles.

But it’s the strength of the personalities that makes this movie so special. Jesse Andrews has created characters bristling with so much life that they might as well jump off the screen. Thomas Mann’s Greg is both effortlessly funny and insecure (stating that he has “a face like a little groundhog”). Whether he’s faux-writhing on the floor in reaction to his mother’s nagging, or artfully discussing the merits of pillows — be they sexual aids or not – or coming to the dawning realization that he cares deeply for Rachel, Mann’s work is simply marvelous.

As the sole person who pierces Greg’s carefully-built emotional shield, Cooke’s Rachel lights up the screen with her genuine warmth and wit. Perhaps it’s her ease in portraying young women who are bright but physically challenged, but Ms. Cooke’s repertoire includes three seasons of Bates Motel – playing all her scenes with an oxygen tube in her nose, carting around a ubiquitous tank – and now, as the cancer-stricken Rachel. If anyone’s considering filming a remake of 1970’s Love Story, Cooke’s a shoo-in.

(l to r): RJ Cyler, Thomas Mann
Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Fox Searchlight

Completing the triad is first-time actor RJ Cyler, a natural at conveying Earl’s slightly cynical, slightly tough-skinned urban kid. He and Mann share a breezy companionship, and we can easily believe that these two are a filmmaking team. However, when it’s called for, Cyler is adept at turning on a dime, playing the truth teller or, rather, the truth yeller, unafraid to rip into his friend when idiocy abounds.

The supporting cast members are across-the-board terrific. Molly Shannon delivers a complex performance as Rachel’s boozy, slightly lecherous, unstable mom. As Greg’s father, Nick Offerman continues to expand on his gallery of the offbeat. His house-bound, tenured professor, fond of cooking unspeakably vile mystery dishes, makes a strange yet fascinating other half to Connie Britton’s demanding, utterly loving mom. They don’t quite fit together and yet, given the quirk of this movie, they do.

Unique. Laugh-out-loud funny. Touching and smart. With skilled direction, a delicious score and again, a superb script, what more could an audience want? Of course the movie won those two Sundance awards … it’s surprising that it didn’t win more.

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Rating on a scale of 5 class acts: 4.5

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Release date: (ltd) June 12, 2015
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenplay by: Jesse Andrews
Based on the novel by: Jesse Andrews
Cast: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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