‘Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Michael Phillips cal­en­dar@la­times.com

The Sun­dance hit about a high schooler’s ill class­mate.

The big noise from this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” is a weaselly liar of a movie. (It’s also good.) It comes on full of self-dep­re­cat­ing blus­ter, pro­fess­ing no in­ter­est in jerk­ing tears, a la “The Fault in Our Stars,” as it lays out its tale of a Pitts­burgh high school se­nior’s friend­ship with a fel­low class­mate di­ag­nosed with can­cer.

But grad­u­ally, as the nar­ra­tor-pro­tag­o­nist learns to lower his emo­tional guard, the film lunges, sen­si­tively, for the jugu­lar.

This film, about a kid for whom cinema is all, was des­tined to be launched in the com­pany of movie geeks at a ma­jor fes­ti­val. Direc­tor Al­fonso Gomez-Re­jon’s com­edy-drama spurred a bid­ding war won by Fox Searchlight at Sun­dance, where it won the two top prizes. With an ap­peal­ing perma-shrug and wry air of self-de­featism, Thomas Mann plays Greg, the “me” of the ti­tle. This half-abra­sive, half-ge­nial so­cial mis­fit spends most of his free time re­mak­ing Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion ti­tles such as “The 400 Blows” or “Mean Streets” or “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” as min­is­poofs with a rel­a­tively straight face.

Greg’s best friend (he refers to him as his “co­worker”) is surly yet sup­port­ive Earl, played by RJ Cyler. Their re­la­tion­ship is de­fined by nat­ter­ing film ref­er­ences by the ton, in­ter­rupted by the oc­ca­sional yearn­ing for their school’s fe­males.

The dy­ing girl is Rachel, por­trayed by Olivia Cooke. Her sphinx-like way of tol­er­at­ing Greg’s supreme so­cial awk­ward­ness plau­si­bly gives way to deep af­fec­tion, even when the script makes you take that part on faith. Egged on by his mother (Con­nie Brit­ton, per­fect in a pen­cil-sketched part), Greg is guilted into be­friend­ing Rachel af­ter she re­ceives her leukemia di­ag­no­sis, leaves school and con­fines her­self largely to her room. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shan­non) copes with the sit­u­a­tion with a glass of the near­est what­ever.

“Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” def lects its own Young Adult best­seller cliches by carv­ing up the story, as An­drews did in his rather raunchier 2012 novel, into chap­ters with ti­tles such as: “The Part Where I Meet a Dy­ing Girl,” or “Day One of Doomed Friend­ship.” If Ber­tolt Brecht en­tered the YA mar­ket, with help from the guys who wrote “(500) Days of Sum­mer,” then you’d have some­thing like Gomez-Re­jon’s sopho­more fea­ture. It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe it out­side the brack­ets of Greg’s own re­lent­less cinephilia; af­ter all, we hear in the open­ing sec­onds that we’re about to watch a film about a kid who “made a film so bad it lit­er­ally killed some­one.”

Gomez-Re­jon worked as a per­sonal as­sis­tant to Martin Scors­ese and “Bird­man” Os­car win­ner Ale­jan­dro G. Inar­ritu, and he at­tacks this ma­te­rial with cam­eras blaz­ing. A Scors­ese shot is fol­lowed by a Kubrick­ian glare into the cam­era, and then a play­ful vis­ual pivot akin to the fan­ci­ful world of Michel Gondry’s movies. In Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” the char­ac­ters’ souls were saved by their love of film, and by their cheap-jack re­makes of beloved ti­tles great and small. “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” trades in a re­lated ado­ra­tion for the heal­ing power of cinema, and if that sounds a lit­tle sticky, well, the film is that, too.

The sup­port­ing cast in­cludes Nick Of­fer­man as Greg’s tenured so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor fa­ther, which is code for “home all the time, cooking.” Jon Bern­thal adds spice and so­lid­ity as Greg’s his­tory teacher. The lo­ca­tion work in Pitts­burgh, cap­tured well and flu­idly by cine­matog­ra­pher Chung-hoon Chung, is full of for­giv­ing light and grace­ful, hill-dot­ted com­po­si­tions.

An­drews has done smart work in par­ing away var­i­ous char­ac­ters from his orig­i­nal novel, in­clud­ing Greg’s sib­lings. The chief lim­i­ta­tion of “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” is an old story: How­ever touch­ing, Cooke’s Rachel is there mainly to prop up the sweetly messed-up young male lead, to laugh at his jokes, and then to qui­etly guide him to­ward adult­hood. At the same time “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” is of­ten very funny, in its arch way, and many will weep big buck­ets of laugh­ter-through-tears. Gomez-Re­jon has a se­ri­ously promis­ing fu­ture; by de­sign, this film is shot in a hun­dred dif­fer­ent styles, ref lect­ing the sen­ti­men­tal and cin­e­matic ed­u­ca­tion of its pro­tag­o­nist.

Anne Marie Fox Fox Searchlight

OLIVIA COOKE,

Thomas Mann, cen­ter, and RJ Cyler are among stars of “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl.”

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