With the glut of shapeless and uninspired teenage dramas hitting the marketplace, a breath of fresh air arrives with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with remarkable control, creativity and fervor, the film is equal parts a homage to classic cinema and a heart-wrenching romantic comedy with earned emotion.
Set in Pittsburgh, we meet the senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) whose introductory narration explains how he fits into his high school: by acting amiably “mellow” with every group, he’s vaguely appreciated by everyone. In one remarkable tracking shot we push through the dreaded free-for-all habitat that is the school cafeteria, meeting each of these crowds, but absent of Greg and his best friend (or as he calls him, “co-worker”) Earl (RJ Cyler). They instead take their daily meals in the classroom of their eccentric teacher (Jon Bernthal) as Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams and Martin Scorsese‘s commentary track for Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann are played.
Yes, these two love cinema and not in the wayAndrew Garfield’s Peter Parker simply hangs a Blow-Up poster in his bedroom. Due to the fondness for foreign and classic films held by Greg’s stay-at-home father (Nick Offerman), the two kids soak up as much as they can get their hands on. This deep affection soon progresses to home-made films with a twist on their favorites: Breathless becomes Breath Less, Peeping Tom now Pooping Tom, Midnight Cowboy is 2:48 Cowboy, etc. It’s the sort of addition that could be insufferably quirky in a bad Michel Gondry movie (you know the one), but here it’s lovingly executed and feels impeccably in tandem with the characters’ awkward personalities.
The drama manifests itself when Greg is forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate with whom he barely has contact with and one who has recently diagnosed with leukemia. Jesse Andrews‘ script, based on his own novel, smartly skirts away from obvious conversations regarding the meaning of life and instead crafts a genuine friendship. Greg’s offbeat humor (even including jokes about death) eventually earns the affection of Rachel and we see their friendship effectively ramp up, complete with discernible title cards such as “Day 58 of Doomed Friendship.”
Gomez-Rejon, who is behind much of American Horror Story and last year’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake, will certainly earn comparisons to Wes Anderson due to the compositions and kinetic camera movement, although his style isn’t as rigid. Shot by frequent Park Chan-wook cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung, what would be standard conversations are elevated with the visual language; a critical scene featuring Rachel in the foreground and Greg in the background is done with great effect in a single shot, while a multitude of whip pans, push ins, careful zooms, and more effectively convey a kinetic energy.
Falteringly slightly before the climax, the relationship between Greg and Rachel is briefly tossed aside, so when Gomez-Rejon goes for abundant emotion, aided by composer Brian Eno‘s The Big Ship, it doesn’t click as well as it should. Two characters also get the short shrift: Molly Shannon, portraying Rachel’s single, alcoholic mother, is a bit unconvincing, playing things a touch too over-the-top. Cyler’s Earl, who is seemingly substantial enough to earn a third of the title, isn’t as fleshed-out as his co-leads, and a few misogynistic jokes don’t help his case.
Otherwise, most of the film gels well, particularly the tricky tonal balance of making a flat-out entertaining dramedy tackling impending death at every turn. Bursting with creativity in almost every scene, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl signals the arrival of a promising new talent with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a director who is not only is keenly aware of the masters that came before, but is able to use that knowledge to create something altogether his own.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Fox Searchlight.