Pity the much hyped-about and twitted-about festival film. Whether it premieres at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes or Toronto, the film, once it opens commercially, has to meet the huge expectations placed upon it by the twittersphere, early reviews and word of mouth. Winning the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at Sundance and being the subject of a bidding frenzy for its distribution rights adds little to the pressure. That is the case of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the quirky, funny, melancholic and rather problematic coming of age tale directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from Jesse Andrews novel.
The film is a cinephiles’ paradise, full of sly references and tributes to “Citizen Kane,” the films of Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick, among others. The protagonist even wears an official Chicago International Film Festival T-shirt in a couple of scenes. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is also deliberately twee. It is too clever for its own good in its use of overhead shots, animation, reenactments of classic films and a sarcastic voice-over intent on overturning our expectations. But then slowly, and slyly, the film begins to win you over with its confident directing, acting and writing. It charms and seduces you. You can’t help but fall under its spell.
Greg (Thomas Mann), the film’s unreliable narrator, is a high school senior who has learned to navigate his school’s many cliques without becoming a part of them. He relishes his status as a loner, detached from the rest of society. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his only friend, the only kid in school who shares Greg’s love for foreign-language films. They both have shot over 40 short parodies of the films they love under such titles as “Senior Citizen Kane” and “A Sockwork Orange.” Going to college for Greg is an afterthought, discussion of which is avoided. His parents are well meaning but peculiar. His father (Nick Offerman) is a sociology professor who spends most of the movie walking around the house in different kimonos while testing and tasting some exotic food.
Greg’s overbearing mother (Connie Britton) comes up with the rather condescending idea that Greg should become friends with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class who’s been diagnosed with leukemia because, you know, it will do him good. Greg reluctantly obeys and goes to Rachel’s house to discover that she is the same girl he had insulted hours before. They both discover an affinity for quirky, sarcastic humor and they quickly become friends. But this is not a romantic movie as Greg warns his audience over and over.
About three quarters of the way in, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” takes a 180-degree turn as Rachel’s illness turns for the worse and Greg watches helplessly. His quirky, at times indifferent, attitude begins to backfire as he confronts a situation he is emotionally unprepared for. The scenes of Rachel struggling with her treatment and its effects on their friendship are heart wrenching but Andrews, Gomez-Rejon, Mann and Cooke never overplay their hands. Their final scenes beautifully convey a sense of helplessness. Mann portrays Greg as a fish out of water in these scenes, an explorer navigating previously uncharted waters. And Cooke delicately brings to life the sadness, the frustration and anger of a person who’s doing her best to confront the inevitable.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not an original film. As early as last year, a similar teen cancer romantic drama hit our screens: “The Fault in Our Stars.” The film’s cinephilia was also the subject of Michel Gondry’s deeply flawed “Be Kind Rewind”. And Andrews and Gomez-Rejon take a cue from Wes Anderson by using chapter headings as a structuring device. Yet, they have managed to create a film that feels fresh, with a distinctive point of view.
The film has its flaws. Earl, the only prominent African-American character in this mostly white world, is limited to the role of sidekick and inner city sage. His brother fares no better: he’s your stereotypical hoodlum who sits on the porch, gun in hand, accompanied by his dog, and occasionally harassing the clueless white boy. And when it comes right down to it, poor Rachel is nothing more than a narrative device that will force Greg to finally grow up. More kudos to Cooke, then, for helping her character transcend that limiting role.