WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
The cancer themed “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” revolves around three adolescent characters, whose lives intersect in unanticipated ways.
The YA vehicle made quite a splash at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to a standing ovation. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the category of U.S. Drama.
Central character, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), is a white, middle class senior in a Pittsburgh high school. As Greg explains in an early scene, he strives to carefully navigate the many, diverse social cliques at this high school. Rather than join any of them, instead he opts to peacefully co-exist with all of them.
Greg’s principal chum is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler), an African-American from a decidedly less affluent background. Ever since the two were young boys (Gavin Dietz as young Greg, Edward DeBruce III as young Earl), they shared a passion for film. They weren’t mere passive cinephiles. Instead, the two made their own amateur shorts. Parodies of Hollywood hits, they included such clever titles as “A Sockwork Orange,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” “2:48 Cowboy,” and “Eyes Wide Butt.” Surprisingly, this joke never becomes stale. Indeed, these shorts, intermittently inserted into the text of the film, are little gems.
Each day, Greg and Earl eat lunch together in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), a cool, heavily tattooed teacher, who offers inspiration to the lads. Despite their long and seemingly close relationship, Greg insists on referring to Earl as his, “co-worker,” rather than as his “friend.”
One day, Greg learns that a classmate of his, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia. Years before, Greg had attended Hebrew school with Rachel. However, they have maintained only the most superficial of relationships. Besides, Greg is painfully shy with girls. Nevertheless, Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) and dad (Nick Offerman) insist that he start visiting his ailing classmate.
An awkward situation ensues as Greg starts his obligatory visits to Rachel. Her mother (Molly Shannon) expresses profuse gratitude, smothering Greg with unwelcome hugs and kisses. However, Greg is only showing up because his parents have issued a fiat that he do so, not out of any genuine altruism. Rachel is well aware of this salient fact. Despite this initial discomfiture, the two slowly begin to develop a less guarded relationship.
At Earl’s insistence, Greg shares their collection of short films with Rachel. She gets a big kick of these quirky works, which help raise her spirits. How will they impact the dynamic between Greg and Rachel?
Jesse Andrews has written the film’s screenplay, which he adapted from his own 2012 debut novel of the same name. It captures the source novel’s tone, which is both heartfelt and funny. The film succeeds at marrying these disparate tonal elements in a way that seems organic, not artificially slapped together.
Previously, the film’s Mexican-American director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, made television commercials, episodes of television shows such as “Glee” and “American Horror Story, and a single feature, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” In his sophomore feature venture, Gomez-Rejon manifests considerable growth.
Both Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke acquit themselves nicely in their respective roles. However, the gem here is RJ Cyler, who steals the film with an extremely resonant performance. Unfortunately, Molly Shannon, offers another cringe-worthy performance as Rachel’s mom. Her character, as portrayed by Shannon, fails to recognize appropriate boundaries.
Pittsburgh is shown to advantage in this film by Korean-born cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung (“Stoker’). As depicted here, the city exudes a neighborhood feel. Its rolling hills may initially cause the viewer to misperceive that the film is set in San Francisco.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” offers a stark contrast to last summer’s, “The Fault in Our Stars,” another film about an adolescent afflicted with a terminal illness. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the vastly better film. It features a more realistic story line as well as characters, who are far more engaging.
Enhanced by its effective denouement, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a genuinely touching teen weepy.
***1/2 PG -13 (for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements) 105 minutes. Fox Searchlight
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprosegmail.com.