Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Winner of Sundance Film Fest Jury and Audience Awards

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_posterThe title of this impressive indie, which debuted to great acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Fest, winning both the jury and the audience awards, may be too literal for its own good but it is also accurate.

On the surface, the film is the tale of a high-schooler forced to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the unique emotional bond that emerges between them.

This poignant version of Jesse Andrews’ novel is emotionally touching and laced with enough humor to connect with younger viewers in a significant way.

For better or worse, inevitable comparisons will be made with last summer’s The Fault in Our Stars, which was directed by Josh Boone and became a commercial hit, and also with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_5_mann_cookeAlonso Gomez-Rejon, who served as an assistant to Scorsese, and worked on  various films and TV shows (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), has made some clever choices in dealing with the sort of material that could have easily turned into schmaltzy melodrama.

Well cast in the lead, Thomas Mann plays Greg Gaines, a normal teenager, that is, awkward, as befits his status and age.

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_8_mann_cookeThat his interactions tend to be shallow is understandable, which may explain why he initially refers to his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), who is black, as “co-worker.”  The two boys spend a lot of time together, studying for school, engaging in making shorts of cult movies and then labeling them with titles like “A Sockwork Orange,”  “Monorash,” or “Pooping Tom.”

Given his status, Greg is shy and insecure as far as dating (or even interacting with) girls is concerned.  Thus, when his mother (Connie Britton) asks him to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke), her request is met with mixed feelings, especially after meeting Rachel’s eccentric mother (played by comedian Molly Shannon with much needed humor).

Diagnosed with leukemia, Rachel has found all kinds of survival strategies, including what to tell (or not to tell) and how to talk about her illness.  the last thing she wants is for people to feel sorry for her.

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_10_mann_offermanGradually, the jokes stop and these two fragile souls begin to reveal their true feelings.  However, the bond is rather platonic; in fact, Greg is romantically more interested in another classmate (played by Katherine Hughes).

While the friendship between Greg and Rachel is engaging, for me, it is the lazy, easygoing bond between Greg and Earl that is more intriguing, even if we don’t really know how it started.  Not much is made of the fact that one boy, Greg, is white and more affluent and the other, Earl, black, and of lower class.

Eccentric supporting roles include Greg’s father (Nick Offerman) and a heavily tattooed sociology teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), bth of which verge on being caricatures.

As Earl, Cyler evolves effectively from comic relief to a more significant figure as the relationship between Greg and Rachel deepens.  Rachel’s deterioration is depicted in realistic yet dignified ways.

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_7_mannThe tale is well shot by Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (“Stoker”)in Pittsburgh on actual locations. Some scenes were filed in the house in which scribe Andrews himself grew up and his parents still live in.

 

The director’s greatest achievment is in finding the right tone, blending effectively some funny and witty observations without ever dimiishing the theme’s seriousness and the inevitably tragic consequences of the illness.

There’s no denying that the movie is a weepy, but it is also one with emotional pull, which work hard in earning our tears without being too calculated or manipulative.