Sentimentality held in check in ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’
By Bob Bloom
Making a movie about a dying teenager can be a tricky proposition.
If it’s too sentimental, the filmmaker is usually accused of being emotionally manipulative. If he goes in the other direction, he is charged with being unrealistic or cynical.
It’s a slippery slope that is difficult to balance. It seems, however, that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has mastered these nuances with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
The movie, which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, centers on three high-school students — Greg (Thomas Mann), who spends most of his time making movie parodies; Earl (RJ Cyler) his movie-making business partner, whom Greg refuses to refer to as his friend; and Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the dying girl, diagnosed with a form of leukemia.
Greg narrates the film, explaining that he drifts through school acting friendly with the various cliques, while not making attachments with any of them.
He knows Rachel only casually; yet his mother informs him about Rachel’s condition and insists he go to her house to spend time with her and comfort her.
Greg accedes reluctantly, and eventually they begin hanging out.
One of Rachel’s girlfriends, knowing that Greg and Earl make movies, pushes the two to make a film for Rachel.
Again, Greg, feeling forced into a corner, half-heartedly agrees, despite not knowing exactly what kind of movie to make.
Slowly, Rachel’s influence changes Greg’s outlook on life. He even applies for college, which he had been refusing to do despite his parents nagging efforts.
The movie succeeds because Jess Andrews, who adapted his novel for the screen, has created some quirky, yet believable young characters.
Like most teenagers, they appear shallow and self-involved, yet are able to overcome their selfish tendencies to reach out to others.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” achieves its balance without dipping into too much sentimentality or cuteness. The film has a slight edge that gives it a real vibe.
Mann gives an outstanding performance as a loner who hides his disdain for his fellow students by learning their languages just enough to get by but without having to get involved.
Cooke brings a strength and vulnerability to Rachel who uses humor, self-deprecation and sarcasm in her battle with cancer.
Cyler’s Earl is not as well defined as the other two. However, he is the most grounded of the trio in the real world. When he finally explodes at Greg, his frustration and anger are understandable and necessary.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” overcomes many of the shortcomings that plague young-adult films. It has an honesty that is refreshing and inspired.
Despite an ending that is a bit too pat in wrapping everything up very neatly, the film deserves to be seen and cherished because features such as this come along very rarely.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
3 ½ out of 4
(PG-13), language, sexual situations, mature themes, drug use