ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL Movie Review – Funny and Heartbreaking and Poignant
My Rating: [usr=4.5 size=15]
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Before we go any further I want to make it clear that this is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. I don’t want to bury the lede, this film is REALLY good and you should definitely go see it when it opens on June 12th. Ok, so what is it and why should you see it? Let’s talk.
This film, which won both the Audience Award AND the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Greg, a painfully awkward high school senior whose mother forces him to make friends with Rachel, a girl he knows who has been diagnosed with Leukemia. Also, as you might have guessed, Greg is friends with a guy named Earl. Greg and Earl are obsessed with movies and like to make their own. The movie tells the story of Greg, Earl, and Rachel’s senior year of high school and the friendship they develop. Now, there’s no escaping that this is territory we’ve explored before in lots of films. The closest comparison is probably something like The Fault in Our Stars or other Sundance darlings like The Way Way Back. What makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl so special is that it takes some familiar tropes (the awkward/shy kid, the movie/pop culture obsessed characters, the dying friend, etc…) it acknowledges that they’re familiar tropes, and then makes them feel real.
The sense of realness in this film is really interesting in that it’s almost a contradiction. The film feels very constructed, very put together. It’s got a self-aware voice over narration that almost breaks the fourth wall. The film also feels heavily designed, like the love child of Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. The way the kids’ neighborhood looks, the architecture of the high school, the way their rooms are put together—they’re messy and perfect and warped and not quite real-life. But, the film also feels tactile, like you could reach out and touch it. This is due, in large part, to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung who’s most notable work (at least to me) is the 2003 film Oldboy (not the Spike Lee remake). The cinematography in this film is really special. The shots are beautifully composed and there is quite a bit of attention paid to the way light is used within the frame. Sometimes it’s the light of the sun, streaming through a window, and sometimes it’s the light of a film projector. The camera also whizzes around, turns on its side, and stays completely still—all when it needs to. In a time when there is much discussion of impressive long takes, particularly long takes of the variety seen in True Detective last year and Daredevil this year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has one of the most impressive long takes I’ve ever seen and the camera doesn’t move an inch. Given that a major section of this film is devoted to the filmic obsessions of its characters, it’s appropriate that the cinematography is such a prominent part of the film-almost its own character. The camera runs right up to the edge of being distracting, but is controlled enough so that it doesn’t cross that line.
The performances in this film are also excellent. The three leads, Thomas Mann (Greg), RJ Cyler (Earl), and Olivia Cooke (Rachel) all turn in nuanced, naturalistic performances, which is particularly impressive given that all three characters are of the type that could easily become caricatures. Cooke’s Rachel is the titular Dying Girl. In a typical film of this sort she would be full of wisdom, mature beyond her years. Not so here. Rachel is scared, and lonely, and afraid to make new friends. She covers her fears with sarcasm and humor, but despite those defense mechanisms there’s a genuine vulnerability to her performance that is very disarming. RJ Cyler as Earl was perhaps my favorite performance in the film. Earl is raw and real and not afraid to speak his mind. Earl spends a lot of the film very quiet, listening, observing the other two leads, but then there are moments where Cyler’s performance jumps off the screen and gets right in your face. He’s great. Thomas Mann has the most heavy lifting to do as Greg and he is entirely up to the task. He’s playing the character we’ve seen the most in other movies like this: the shy, awkward, lonely kid who doesn’t fit in. His performance, including the voice over narration, just works so well, which is crucial. If you don’t buy Greg, you’re not going to buy this movie. Mann’s performance is charismatic and heartbreaking.
There are also a handful of supporting performances in the film that are quite good. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton play Greg’s parents. Nick Offerman is doing something really different in this film. Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mother in a performance that is somehow endearing and creepy at the same time. The standout supporting turn came from Jon Bernthal, most notable for playing Shane on The Walking Dead. He plays a history teacher that both Earl and Greg have bonded with. Again, this is a character that could easily bleed over into a caricature or a one dimensional filmic trope, but the writing and Bernthal’s performance create a character that feels like a real person you can believe exists. I’m not sure if I believe this guy would be allowed to be a teacher in a public school, but that’s beside the point.
If I had to gripe about something, it would have to do with the tone of the film. I think it works, but I was almost put off by it at the beginning of the film. There’s a moment early on when Greg calls Rachel for the first time. He’s just found out that she has Leukemia and he’s being forced by his mother to get in touch with her. It’s an awkward call. While Greg is on the phone with her, the camera drifts over to the TV set for just a moment and playing on the TV is the scene from Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle makes a super awkward phone call to Betsy. It’s on screen in this film for maybe a second. Just long enough for me to register what it was and get the reference. This film is full of these types of references. They come and go super quick and a lot of them are really obscure. If you’re a film nut who is going to get Werner Herzog jokes or know what Errol Morris’s Interrotron is, there’s a lot in here that’s going to tickle your funny bone. These references are fun, but I wonder how well this film will work if you’re not the kind of person who is going to get this stuff. I think it will. The emotional core of the film does not rest on your knowledge of obscure film references, but being in on those jokes adds another layer to the experience. It also adds a layer to the reality that these kids are living in. I said before that while this film has a solid foundation of reality, it also feels highly constructed and put together. These references are part of that construction. This film is told exclusively through Greg’s point of view, and as a super geeky film buff, these references are absolutely a part of his world and would be on his mind. I know because I was this kid once upon a time. Like the camera work, the tone of the film runs right up to the edge of being distracting without quite crossing the line. Maybe a toe.
If it’s not clear yet, I really dug Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s poignant. Before this film, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was mostly a Second Unit Director and TV director. His only previous feature film directing credit is the 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. I don’t know what he’s got lined up next but he is a name to watch. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes out on June 12th and for many of you it will be a welcome break from all the CGI destruction and explosions of the summer movie season. I can’t wait to see it again.