Me & Earl & the Dying Girl will probably be one of my favorites from this SIFF season. People are erroneously and unfairly comparing it to the teenage cancer flick of last year The Fault in our Stars. Me & Earl is about high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) who has coasted through high school remaining (happily for him) under the radar. He navigates the cliques and popularity warzones of school by avoiding them completely. He spends lunchtime in his history teacher's office, watching old movies with Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he refers to as a mere "co-worker" despite the fact that they've grown up together. "Co-worker" refers to the movies they make together: movies that are both a joyful homage and gleeful tongue-in-cheek to movie buffs, including titles such as "Sockwork Orange" and "Senior Citizen Kane." The impetus to the movie is when Greg is coerced by his mother to hang out with his neighbor Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after they find out she has been diagnosed with cancer, despite the fact that Greg has had little to no interaction with her in the past ten years other than his classification of her being in what he has meticulously categorized as "Upper-Middle-Class Senior Jewish Girl Sub-Clique 2a". Rachel doesn't want his pity, but she allows his presence and what turns into friendship because from the beginning, Greg neither wants to pity her or to even be there in the first place.
Me & Earl is charming and witty without ramming it down our throats and is filled with dialogue and snappy comebacks that are believable and topical. One of the many problems with The Fault was that it was filled with words and lines that seriously made me doubt their authenticity, making me balk and wonder if there are actually any teenagers anywhere in the world that talk like that. On the other hand, Greg is one of those guys you want to be friends with - for his wit, his ease and nonease in life, and for the genuine candor that comes only from an unaffected teenager's demeanor. Rachel's illness and her struggle with it are very real, but it's not a movie that has to dramatize or use her disease as a crutch.
Mann, Cooke, and Cyler are the breathing pulse of this movie. Never once did I doubt their authenticity or feel they were putting on a show - either through their acting ability, or their lives as teenagers. Despite director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's previous adolescent jaunts in highly produced television shows such as Glee and American Horror Story, Me & Earl is an unforced sensitive portrayal of a friendship that blooms because of a mutual expression of love. There are certainly quirky highly produced moments, including some stop-motion work and the ever hilarious movie productions of Greg/Earl. One of my favorite cinematographers, Chung-Hoon Chung is also in force here giving an artistic eye to a different genre than the ones we're used to seeing.
Go see this movie. The story isn't new, but the presentation is. It's quirky without constantly proclaiming its cleverness, and its wit assumes that you understand its references without insisting that you're intelligent. There might be a dying girl in the title, but the movie itself is an elegant snapshot of how adolescents live and how the current generation fails to connect. It's a movie that had me both cracking up in my seat and even a bit of manly mist in the eye, which is saying quite a bit.
Playing at SIFF
May 16 - 6:30 PM (AMC Pacific Place 11)
May 17 - 2:30 (SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival)