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A smart-ass charmer, merciless tearjerker and sincere celebration of teenage creativity, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got a standing ovation at its Eccles premiere today and deserved it. The tragicomic story of the friendship between a misfit teen, his pal Earl, and — uh, you get the idea — is an illness pic without the guilt-inducing mawkishness or carpe diem platitudes. Film-geek friendly but thoroughly accessible and very funny, it has the makings of a mainstream hit. What’s more, the girl lives. Maybe.
Thomas Mann plays Greg, a high schooler who starts senior year confident that having diplomatic ties to all cliques but real friendships in none is the key to survival. His single bond is with Earl (RJ Cycler), the only other kid around who digs the foreign movies Greg’s world-traveling dad (Nick Offerman) likes to watch. Together, the boys make punny lo-fi parodies of the classics (for example, A Sockwork Orange and Senior Citizen Cane).
Forced by his pushy mom (Connie Britton) to visit a girl he hardly knows who was just diagnosed with leukemia, Greg is appalled. But while Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is similarly aghast at the parentally obligated pity date, she soon proves an easy crowd for Greg’s comic material — the sort of smart, self-deprecating wit that is the stock-in-trade of teenage boys who know they’re not living up to their potential.
They hit it off, becoming fast friends, and the movie knows what you’re thinking: More than once, Greg’s winning voiceover (written by Jesse Andrews, from his novel) points out that no, this is not where the two are going to lock eyes, declare their love and tumble into each other’s arms. (Their failure to do that doesn’t mean they’re not in love.) Greg manages perceptions in other ways as well, assuring us that this girl we’re falling for is not going to do what the title implies. “She survives … so don’t freak out.”
By his second reassurance, we may question Greg’s motives. Is it just his desire to protect us as we enter his psyche — a world in which the school’s resident Hot Girl wounds him like a moose who tramples small woodland mammals without even knowing? Gomez-Rejon animates this colorful metaphor and some others as well, overlaying the screen with helpful titles, such as “Day 7 of Doomed Friendship,” and shows us a few of Greg and Earl’s movies. The playfulness of the storytelling sometimes recalls (500) Days of Summer, sometimes nods toward the more absurd moments in John Cusack‘s teen-angst comedies and inspires comparison to many other touchstones without feeling copied from any of them.
Mann, shaggy and insecure and unhandsome enough to get away with it when he complains of having an animal’s face, makes an excellent Everyguy here, and his funniness is unforced. Cycler’s Earl is more overtly charismatic, though similarly low-key (especially when raptly watching a Herzog or Powell and Pressburger DVD). And the film makes good but sparing use of him as a loose-lipped agent of change in Greg and Rachel’s relationship.
The film is so comfortable with its chunks of gold it doesn’t mind not spending them all. Any pic that can introduce Offerman and Britton in roles that play to their strengths then leave them out of most of the movie without causing viewers to complain is doing something right elsewhere. (Molly Shannon, as Rachel’s boozed-up, oversharing mother, gets more scenes and is as ideal for them as Offerman and Britton.)
The toughness of leukemia treatment is touched on during Greg’s daily visits to Rachel’s house but never dominates the film’s mood. When the issue becomes impossible to ignore, Gomez-Rejon shifts gears adeptly without losing his fascination with the ways these kids entertain themselves and each other. The whole thing, after all, is a book Greg is writing, and after years of making little joke films he didn’t want anyone but Earl to see, he’s finally done something that demands to be shared.
Production company: Indian Paintbrush
Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriter: Jesse Andrews
Producers: Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Dan Fogelman
Executive producer: Nora Skinner
Director of photography: Chung-hoon Chung
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Jennifer Eve
Editor: David Trachtenberg
Music: Brian Eno
Casting director: Angela Demo
Sales: Alexis Garcia, WME
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