Monday, June 22, 2015

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL Is the Emo Teenager With a Good Heart of Movies


- This is one of those tough movies to review. A blatant tearjerker, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is very effective at tugging at the ol' heartstrings, but it does so in a way that occasionally feels a little emotionally manipulative and a little too self-consciously indie-emo-quirky for its own good. That said, strong performances, unique presentation, and a general likability elevate it above standard teen melodrama fare. This is a movie aimed squarely at the awkward, gawky, slightly-pretentious teenager inside all of us.

Thomas Mann plays Greg, a high school loner who's decided to avoid conflict as best he can by staying under the radar and keeping human connection to a minimum. His one friend (who he refers to as his "co-worker") is Earl (RJ Cyler), a truth-spouting fellow outsider who shares Greg's love for classic movies. Together, the two make an endless series of knowingly quirky film parodies - but their movies are a secret from everyone but Greg's eccentric college-professor dad (a winning Nick Offermann). One day, Greg's Mom (an equally winning Connie Britton) urges her son to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's recently been diagnosed with leukemia. She sees it as an act of charity, and Greg sees it as an annoying obligation. And Rachel, upon first meeting Greg, is in no great hurry to spend forced hang-out time with a random guy who's never previously been all that friendly to her (her mom, played hilariously by Molly Shannon, is much more excited about the whole thing). But Greg and Rachel hang out, and slowly but surely, they form a close bond - with Earl in the mix as well. The three become an unlikely trio of friends, but the specter of Rachel's increasingly debilitating illness looms over them.

The central trio of Mann, Cyler, and Cooke are all extremely likable and turn in some really excellent performances. Cooke in particular has been impressive of late in everything she's been in, from her role on Bates Motel to the underrated The Signal to this film - she always brings a lot of unexpected depth to the characters she plays. And she really wins you over as Rachel. Cyler too is really great as Earl. He comes from a rougher neighborhood that Greg, and doesn't wallow in the same sort of self-pity as his emo friend. Cyler is really funny, and Earl's straight-talk style provides a lot of the movie's best moments. Now, Mann is quite good as Greg. But his character is the hardest to really like of the main three. Greg feels too much like an amalgam of every high school movie geeky-protagonist cliche. He's got his high-school mapped out into easily-definable clicks? Check. He's got a pop-culture reference for every occasion? Check. He's got a cute girl that seems super into him but for some reason he ignores her because clearly he's not even in her league even though he's basically just a normal if slightly-awkward dude? Check and check. Greg can be annoying at times, but to Mann's credit he does layer in some genuine acting and emotion beneath the obligatory layers of quirk.

And as I alluded to, the movie's supporting players are fantastic. Offerman, Britton, Shannon - all excellent as Greg and Rachel's parents. Jon Bernthal also does very solid work as a sympathetic teacher.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon also does a lot to elevate this one above the teen-drama competition. Greg loves classic movies, and although it feels slightly cliche-ish, Gomez-Rejon makes it work by infusing this film with a palpable sense of fun and genuine affection for the films that its protagonist is so obsessed with. Seeing Greg and Earl's many film parodies could have been tedious, but they are presented with such a sense of whimsy and creativity that you can't help but dig 'em. Throughout the movie, Gomez-Rejon pays tribute to and slyly plays with classic film conventions as well - in the way that he shoots certain scenes and in the way he occasionally subverts expectations with the story. Credit also to writer Jesse Andrews (who adapted the screenplay from his own novel) for crafting a story that makes an effort to be a bit different.

Still, I do think that the movie is occasionally too movie-like and self-referential for its own good. The film tries at once to be authentic-seeming and slice-of-life, but also cinematic in a clearly-this-is-a-movie way. A lot of scenes - including the film's affecting but far-fetched climax - feel overly-contrived in a way that can undermine the film's stab at capturing authentic teenage life. By that same token, I think that Cooke helps elevate the role of Rachel, but there is still an element of manic-pixie-dreamgirl-ness to her that at times makes her feel like the classic only-in-the-movies dorky guy's dreamgirl. 

Overall though, I liked ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and its charms won me over despite some of my reservations about the film's slightly-trying-too-hard quirk-factor. The movie is indeed a charmer, and it successfully choked me up a couple of times thanks to a fearlessness at going all-in with its premise and not shying away from sadness and pain. Through it all though, the film balances out the melancholy with wit and humor and likability. Yeah, it's heightened and emo and a little *much* ... but what teenager isn't?

My Grade: B+

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