An in­spir­ing take on ques­tions of life and death

The Church of England - - REVIEWS - Steve Parish

Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl (cert. 12A), is an edgy but lovely film from Al­fonso Gomez-Re­jon, as he moves from di­rect­ing episodes of Glee to this high school story of friend­ship, com­pas­sion and frailty. It’s ded­i­cated to his fa­ther, a doc­tor, who died as he started to make the film.

Adapted by Jesse An­drews from his own 2012 novel, it fea­tures Greg (Thomas Mann), do­ing his best in his Penn­syl­va­nia high school to stay out of trou­ble by not iden­ti­fy­ing with any of the war­ring fac­tions. It’s a tac­tic that’s stood him in good stead, and left him to cul­ti­vate his part­ner­ship with Earl (RJ Cyler), a black kid from the poor side of town.

They make home movies to­gether, spoofs of their favourites – they range from Se­nior Citizen Kane to Brew Vel­vet and 2:48pm Cow­boy. Werner Herzog fea­tures (in clips with Klaus Kin­ski from Bur­den of Dreams), but Pow­ell and Press­burger seem a spe­cial in­ter­est (Poop­ing Tom), as they even have a minia­ture tar­get and ar­rows for their ver­sions of the Archers films.

What dis­turbs Greg’s rou­tine is when his mother (Con­nie Brit­ton) in­sists he takes a car­ing in­ter­est in Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl he barely knows, who has leukaemia. There be­gins an un­likely re­la­tion­ship, badged from day one as a “doomed friend­ship”, though Rachel’s mum (Moly Shan­non) seems overly glad to see him.

Rachel may have phys­i­cal prob­lems, but she susses Greg’s poor view of his own per­son­al­ity, and guides him as he pon­ders whether to go to col­lege. As she gets sicker, un­rea­son­ably feel­ing ugly when she loses her hair, even Greg’s en­cour­age­ment not to give in seems like he wants to take away her choices.

Greg’s dad (Nick Of­fer­man), very laid back with a taste for un­likely food, may of­fer home­spun ad­vice, but Greg is more likely to turn for sup­port to one of his teach­ers, Mr McCarthy (Jon Bern­thal). He too has a taste for ex­otic food in the form of Asian soups, and there’s even a sug­ges­tion that the soup is laced with drugs.

Other char­ac­ters add to the mix, not least the real odd­ity in school, lone rap­per and drug dealer Ill Phil (Masam Holden). By con­trast, hot girl Madi­son (Kather­ine C Hughes) takes an in­ter­est in Greg, or at least in his friend­ship with Rachel.

It’s just that when­ever she’s near, Greg’s mind con­jures up this car­toon ver­sion of what hot girls do to boys like him, a large moose stamp­ing on a ro­dent. These an­i­ma­tions punc­tu­ate the story, along with snip­pets of the films he and Earl have made.

Prompted by Madi­son, Greg tries to make a film spe­cially for Rachel, but it proves harder than he ex­pects, and he even falls out with Earl (his “co­worker”, Greg calls him, try­ing to avoid the idea of friend­ship). As Rachel’s health de­te­ri­o­rates, the prospect of get­ting the film done keeps slip­ping.

It’s never mawk­ish, and some in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses to ill­ness, as in “It’s all part of God’s plan”, are given short shrift (Greg and Rachel are Jewish). This tragi­comic story has Greg’s nar­ra­tion to keep the flow, but the mix of laugh­ter and tears makes it a sen­si­tive treat­ment of se­ri­ous ill­ness.

Some of the jokes are sim­ple, there’s a run­ning joke about the sex­ual place of pil­lows, and, as Greg’s dad misses the point of sar­casm, it’s all done well enough to be very funny. The whole cast draw the best from their roles, though Olivia Cooke needs spe­cial men­tion for bring­ing “the dy­ing girl” to life.

De­spite win­ning both the au­di­ence and grand jury prizes at the Sun­dance Fes­ti­val, the film did not do too well at the US box of­fice. I loved its imag­i­na­tive, funny, poignant treat­ment of fac­ing ill­ness and death, and it’s my favourite film so far this year.

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