The movie year 2015 has had its share of pleasant surprises — few more so than Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. This, in fact, was a surprise on a couple of levels. It sounded forced-quirky and possibly gooey. It had all sorts of Sundance “buzz” — something I find more suspect with each passing year. Worse, it took the “Audience Award” — a red flag for me ever since Whale Rider sloshed into town 12 years ago, hell-bent on being uplifting. And, while it’s no fault of the film, catching its press screening required two early morning trips into town, owing to a faulty digital package on the first round. While it was not the least bit fair of me, I was definitely in an “All right, whelm me” frame of mind when it actually started. Damned if it didn’t do it.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is based on a YA book by Jesse Andrews — who also wrote the screenplay — and while it appears the film follows the book fairly closely (I haven’t read it), it seems to depart in several significant ways. That’s not too surprising, since the results are very much a director’s picture. Not to sell the writing short — the script is both witty and touching without being cloying — but what really makes it all work lies in the way Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has made the film, not to mention the performances he’s gotten from his three main characters. Stylistically, Gomez-Rejon’s movie may remind you a bit of Wes Anderson’s work. It has a similar playfulness and its use of music — especially, Brian Eno’s “On Some Faraway Beach” — is not wholly dissimilar. But I’d guess it has more to do with Ryan Murphy — no mean stylist himself, who also has a knack with pop music — for whom Gomez-Rejon has worked on both Glee and American Horror Story. (Murphy also produced his 2014 feature film debut, the stylishly gory re-thinking of The Town That Dreaded Sundown — and, yes, I did come home from the screening and catch this on Netflix.)
The approach to what could have been a pretty saccharine assault on the tear ducts is the key here. Thomas Mann stars as Greg (the Me of the title), a resolutely closed-off 17-year-old with self-esteem issues, who is gliding through high school by being inconspicuously friendly with everyone, while being close to no one. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his only friend, but Greg refuses to admit this. Instead, he refers to Earl as his co-worker, since the pair are burgeoning cineastes, who spend their time making goofy — if knowing — takes on their favorite films. (This, of course, is deliberate catnip to movie fans, and, yes, it does have elements of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind to it, but with more cerebral material.) Greg’s world changes when his unstoppable-force mother (Connie Britton, another American Horror Story alumna) insists he visit classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Ouija), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. What starts out as drudgery — a fact not lost on Rachel, who likes Greg’s forthright attitude and senses there’s more to him than he lets the world see — turns into something else. But the film is very careful to keep this “something else” from going down the paths we expect, keeping it surprisingly fresh for its entire length. Even when it “kind of” veers in a predictable direction, it has its own spin on it all.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Oh, another coming of age movie,” and that’s undeniable. I mean, that is what this is, but it’s also a special example of that genre. It’s a coming of age movie on a par with other recent exceptions to the rule, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and the still-playing (if only just) Dope. It’s worth noting that all of these are indie/art house coming-of-age movies — a very different proposition. This is irreverent enough that it subverts its genre — including the cancer aspect — but has the good sense to remain effectively human, endearing and moving. I’ve seen criticism that the film is too much about Greg, but that seems wrong-headed to me. The very title suggests it’s about his relationship with the other two, and it’s his story, told from his point of view. Put simply, I think it’s very good — sometimes even great. I like it a lot, and, in time, suspect I may well love it. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements.