INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times JUNE 11, 2005 - by A. O. Scott
IN 'ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL', A COMFORT ZONE THAT CANNOT LAST
The "me" in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a Pittsburgh teenager named Greg, a gangly, sarcastic young man - not quite a misfit, but also not a member of any recognizable high school social grouping - with a special fondness for movies. Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler), his best friend since childhood, spend their spare time remaking classic films on video, using stopmotion animation and silly costumes and giving the results groan-inducing punny titles. (Samples from their extensive catalog include The 400 Bros, Monorash and Eyes Wide Butt.)
Their do-it-yourself hobby is a technologically updated, highbrow variation on the "Sweding" practiced by Jack Black and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) in Michel Gondry's 2008 film Be Kind Rewind. But Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own young-adult novel, doesn't dabble in trippy Gondryesque surrealism. It has its quirks and improbabilities, but its sensibility is earnest and earthbound. Nor does it have much in common with the Criterion Collection canon that inspires Earl and Greg's acts of homage. The kind of movie they inhabit - a terminal teen melodrama, a bittersweet coming-of-age story, a wishful tale of interracial friendship - is not the kind of movie they'd be likely to imitate.
On paper, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl should be dreadful. That's not quite fair. On paper, Mr. Andrews's book is lovely: sensitive and rueful and attuned to both the solipsism and the ethical seriousness of adolescence. But it's also full of the sort of themes, emotions and situations that can turn maudlin and embarrassing on the way from page to screen. The self-conscious narrator, the kooky parents and above all the dying girl - these elements are likely to raise alarms among grown-up admirers of the auteurs whom Earl and Greg mock and revere.
Speaking as one such cinephile, I will confess to experiencing some irritation at the start. But I found that my resistance slowly but decisively crumbled, thanks to Mr. Gomez-Rejon's warm, low-key direction and the perceptive, lived-in performances of Mr. Mann, Mr. Cyler and Olivia Cooke as Rachel, the film's third title character and its riskiest proposition.
Rachel is not a close friend of Earl's or Greg's - just a classmate with cancer - until Greg's mother (Connie Britton) insists that he start spending time with her. That awkward parental intrusion and the even more awkward greeting Greg receives from Rachel's mother (Molly Shannon) are handled with humor and graceful realism. Other adults in the film - notably Greg's dad (Nick Offerman) and Earl and Greg's favorite teacher (Jon Bernthal) - are recognisable types from the world of teenage literature. And so, for that matter, are the young people, Rachel in particular. Her kinship with the heroines played by Shailene Woodley and Chloë-Grace Moretz in last summer's dying-girl dramas The Fault In Our Stars and If I Stay is obvious. A similar morbid romanticism floats around her, an aura of tragic mystery deepened by her wry, impatient resistance to sentimentality.
As I said, potentially awful stuff. But Mr. Gomez-Rejon turns down the melodramatic volume and slows the plot almost to the point of stasis. (The music, by Brian Eno with contributions from Nico Muhly, is also wielded gently and judiciously). Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is about growing up, facing death, making and losing friends and other rites of passage, but it's also, and more immediately, about drifting, hanging out, wasting time and succumbing to confusion. And it provides three young people in whose company it is a pleasure to drift and wonder and loaf.
While the filmmakers are not above trying to wring a few tears, they don't wage an all-out assault on your feelings. There is a notable absence of aggression and of the kind of manipulation that yanks adjectives like "devastating" from the laptops of unwitting reviewers. The film is touching and small, but also thoughtful and assured in a way that lingers after the inevitable tears have been shed and the obvious lessons learned.
• • •
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; written by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel; director of photography, Chung-Hoon Chung; edited by David Trachtenberg; music by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly; production design by Gerald Sullivan; costumes by Jennifer Eve; produced by Steven Rales, Dan Fogelman and Jeremy Dawson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures; Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
WITH: Thomas Mann (Greg), Olivia Cooke (Rachel), RJ Cyler (Earl), Nick Offerman (Greg's Dad), Molly Shannon (Denise), Jon Bernthal (Mr. McCarthy), Connie Britton (Greg's Mom), Matt Bennett (Scott Mayhew), Katherine Hughes (Madison), Masam Holden (Ill Phil) and Bobb'e J. Thompson (Derrick)