This movie about a teenager with cancer is partly about movies about teenagers with cancer, writes Jay Stone
Me And Earl and the Dying Girl
Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Running time: 105 minutes
By Jay Stone
There’s a whole genre of movies about young people dying of this and that, from the swords of Romeo and Juliet to the cancer of The Fault In Our Stars. The oddly titled Me And Earl and the Dying Girl — a strangely ungrammatical title considering that the heroes are meant to be pretty smart teenagers — is, in its way, about all of them. This is the meta teen cancer film, a story about a tragic disease but also about movies that are about tragic diseases.
The result is at once intelligent and conniving: a sneaky tear-jerker that sets you up for all the sentiment to come, then pulls out the rug, not to mention the sentiment. (For the record, it jerked no tears for me, although I admired the effort.)
It’s told from the viewpoint of Greg (Thomas Mann, so much better here than he was in the unfortunate Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters), a high school senior whose goal in life is to fit in with all the various communities in school and not make too many waves. But when a casual acquaintance named Rachel is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mother insists he befriend her. Her motivation — entirely convincing — is one of those vague parental instincts for do-goodery that ignores the realities of high school culture in favour of some higher cause that (maddeningly) often turns out to be right.
Greg narrates the story with the self-aware distance of a movie expert: “I like the girl Rachel,” he says, speaking for us, his invisible audience. “I’m going to be pissed if she does at the end.” Greg — and Jesse Andrews, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel it is based on — twist the conventions of the dying-teenager movie to present adolescents who are not only plunged into a life-and-death drama, but are able to stand back and look at it with the skepticism of youth. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl thus has it both ways, or tries to.
Part of Greg’s sophistication in these matters comes from the fact that his dad (Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman) is a foreign film expert who has inculcated his son in the delights of, say, Werner Herzog’s cinema. Greg and his best friend Earl (spirited newcomer RJ Cyler) express their love of movies by making short parodies of many classics: “A Sock Work Orange,” for instance, in which the Stanley Kubrick classic is told with sock puppets. It’s a charming notion and allows director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to decorate the movie with sequences of amateurish (but slightly too polished) stop-motion animation to illustrate Greg’s various moments of angst. These include not only Rachel’s illness but also some of the problems of ordinary teen life, such as his crush on the dishy Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), who is pictured as an animated moose who tramples the tiny chipmunk of Greg’s desire.
It’s entertaining, if unlikely: Greg and Earl’s 42 short films, kept secret from their friends, seem more like a screenplay convention — a way around the clichés of the teen cancer film — than a real project. However, it’s a clever way around them, and you can’t deny the film’s panache.
There’s also a very nice chemistry between Greg and Rachel (Olivia Cook, who may be familiar to some people from the TV series Bates Motel but was a pleasant surprise to me). She’s never allowed to become tragic in the classic movie sense: Earl and Me and the Dying Girl has a firm grasp on the youthful notion of life as a casual entitlement.
The film’s adults are also commendable, from Molly Shannon’s portrayal of Rachel’s somewhat boozy and over-affectionate mother to John Bernthal’s turn as the uber-hip Mr. McCarthy, the coolest teacher in the history of teen cancer movies. He too is hard to believe but easy to like, and that may be enough.
– 30 –