Earl is a pearl
– “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a quirky and unconventional coming of age movie about a girl with Leukemia and her friends, and it manages to be quite touching as well. It doesn’t often fall into predictable teenager angst formula, and though the high school students sometimes seem a little too hip to be believed, the characters (and most importantly, the actors who portray them) are convincingly sincere and feel impeccably natural onscreen. Perhaps most amazingly for a film with a generally somber tone, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not a downer. Funny at times, uncomfortable at others, but definitely worth the journey.
Credit a terrific cast of relative newcomers, including Thomas Mann who as a senior in a Pittsburgh high school is determined not to align himself within the various social cliques at school—in fact in his book friendship is something to avoid because it only leads to hurt. So even in the case of childhood buddy Earl (R.J. Cyler), with whom he has crafted 42 homemade films parodying the classics (favorites include “My Dinner with Andre the Giant” and “A Sockwork Orange”), Greg prefers to call him a “co-employee.” When Greg’s mom (a hilariously, lovingly nagging Connie Britton) guilts him into spending time with fellow student Rachel (penetratingly effective Olivia Cooke) who has been diagnosed with stage IV Leukemia, a form of bone-marrow cancer, Greg initially resists.
What transpires is anything but your normal love story – Rachel and Greg never as much as hold hands together (maybe once?). This would be a death knell in lesser hands but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who cut his teeth learning from Martin Scorsese and Nora Ephron and will be a force to reckon with) guides the wonderful script (by Jesse Andrews, the author who also wrote the novel) gently down a path that demonstrates respect for the characters and the audience. These high schoolers can be vulgar at times but they are far from the sex and drug obsessed teens of most American cinema.
Oh sure, weird characters abound, including some high school freaks (Matt Bennett, Masam Holden) and Nick Offerman is great as Greg’s sociology professor Dad with a penchant for exotic food. Molly Shannon is effective as Rachel’s alcoholic single Mom, and Jon Bernthal as the “Respect the Research”-touting, heavily tattooed history teacher.
It’s interesting that young people seem to be craving films involving tragic thematic material, perhaps owning to the disconnectedness of their social media-centered world. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” offers a fresh recipe. Its beauty lies in its characters’ struggle for self-worth without having to swing for the emotional fences. Somehow, in all its convention-bending ideas, nothing comes out of left field. One particular scene that involves an argument between Greg and Rachel keeps the camera static throughout, trusting the actors will deliver the difficult scene without the need for embellishment. Hint: they do.
Even Greg’s narrative, a device used millions of times, doesn’t detract from the film’s freshness. And a wildly eclectic soundtrack (musical pioneer Brian Eno dominates) illustrates the precision with which the film was made. This is one Sundance award-winning film that has earned its rave reviews.
Rated PG-13 (For sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic material).