If I told you that the movie I’m about to review revolves around a high school senior who establishes a relationship with a female classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia, you’d probably tune out.
Who could blame you? I could be talking about a zillion and a half teen movies in which annoying, pop-culturally savvy kids crack wise before discovering some slightly deeper meaning to life.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
But consider: The movie I’m talking about is called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a title that suggests that you might not be in for the expected mixture of jejune antics and tear-jerking sentiment that too often define the genre known as YA fiction.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brings visual creativity and smarts to the story, which — in outline form — follows the path I’ve just described. But with movies (as with many other pursuits) it’s not always what happens, but how it happens that matters.
Working from a Pittsburgh-based novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, Gomez-Rejon brings us into the world of a high school senior who has discovered what he considers to be a viable survival strategy: Greg (Thomas Mann) gets along with everyone, but gets close to no one. He’s floating through life.
Greg refers to his one real friend (RJ Cyler’s Earl) as a co-worker. That’s because Greg and Earl have been collaborating on movies since they were little kids.
These films (some of which we see) may not be brilliant, but they reflect more than a passing knowledge of cinema. They also have shrewd, parodic titles: Sockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Butt, Senior Citizen Kane and The 400 Bros among them.
What sold me on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl begins with the way Gomez-Rejoin respects his young characters.
Greg is smart, slightly underachieving and reasonably observant. He can be honest, although he’s also capable of self-delusion.
The girl of the story (Olivia Cooke of TV’s Bates Motel) is appealing because she isn’t looking for anyone to join her in a pity party.
Many of the scenes between Mann and Cooke take place in Rachel’s bedroom. No, it’s not what you think; it’s the movie’s way of telling us that Greg is being drawn into a world outside his own. He’s violating his own rules about keeping his distance.
Greg doesn’t do this willingly. He’s forced into a relationship with Rachel when his mother (Connie Britton) insists that he make contact with the “dying girl,” even though he’s barely aware of her existence.
Greg’s father, by the way, is played by Nick Offerman, who brings oddball spin to his character.
Molly Shannon portrays Rachel’s mother, a woman who’s dealing with her calamity by drinking a little too much wine.
No one goes totally off any rails as Gomez-Rejon develops the story, which ultimately finds Greg and Earl trying (without much success) to make a film for Rachel.
The film also makes room for an astute aside about the racial component of the relationship between Greg and Earl.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won the Grand Jury prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and likely will win over audiences, as well.
That doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a knack for keeping Greg’s self-absorption from getting on your nerves, and — for me at least — that counted for a lot.