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“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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I attended a “college” screening of this film over two months ago. I walked away impressed, to say the least. When I had the opportunity to view this film a second time for reviewing purposes, I jumped at the chance to see it again. I’m extremely glad that I did, because this time I was enamored with what I watched. It is no doubt that this gem of independent cinema will require multiple viewings. Yes, I did notice some things that I didn’t the first time I watched it, mostly camera angles. But that’s certainly not why this film will be revisited by audiences everywhere. While “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is classified as a comedy-drama, and it is very funny, the entire idea of this film (which I will not spoil) is the embodiment of “love” and human emotion.

Greg (Thomas Mann of “Project X”) is an awkward, but undeniably funny high school senior. By his own admission, he tries to fit in a little bit with everyone so he can go unnoticed. As a result, Greg has only one actual friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), who has been with him since childhood. Greg likes to refer to Earl as a co-worker rather than a friend, partly because he’s dishonest with himself. However, the two make amateur films (with titles like “Rosemary’s Baby Carrots” and “Senior Citizen Kane”) based on their mutual love of world cinema, some of which they get to watch in their teacher Mr. McCarthy’s (Jon Bernthal) office every day at lunchtime. Who can blame them for spending their free time there? In addition to the works of Werner Herzog ad infinitum, the chairs are a lot comfier and eating lunch in the cafeteria is a daily hassle, with its shotgun corridors resembling a scene straight out of “Snowpiercer” and a ridiculous rapper named “Ill Phil” audibly assaulting everyone who passes!

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Now that we have gotten “Me and Earl” out of the way, I suppose you’re wondering who the “dying girl” is? Her name is Rachel (Olivia Cooke) and she attends the same school as Greg and Earl, only her problems go much deeper than where to eat lunch. Rachel was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) thinks it’s a great idea for Greg to visit Rachel even though the two aren’t close at all. Greg reluctantly agrees to this new burden in his life, a life which is instantaneously changed from that day forward. To explain anything else would be a disservice to both the film and the prospective viewer. This exceptional film co-stars Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother, who always has a glass of wine in her hands and is VERY friendly with the boys (yet innocently so). Also featuring Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, who is always home, in a robe, and trying to get the boys to eat something that would make Andrew Zimmern proud!

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the much-cooler, and funnier, independent answer to the “Fault in Our Stars.” Taking nothing away from that film, this movie benefits from the young and fresh (i.e. not overexposed) cast that the producers have assembled. Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler as the titular nonconformists are two natural young actors who command the screen, plain and simple. One thing I have always noticed about Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) is that she was the one shining beacon in the terrible horror movies “Ouija” and “The Quiet Ones” that she headlined last year. Hopefully, the days of those nonsensical roles are over for this terrific actress who gives an absolutely fantastic performance as a girl who is living in the darkest days of her life, yet they are made somewhat bearable by a boy who is unknowingly living the brightest days of his own. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon proves an effective director with this sophomore effort where he wisely borrows eccentric aspects of certain films. The delightful use of stop-motion animation throughout the film reminded me promptly of Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep,” although I’m sure the great Ray Harryhausen would deserve the ultimate credit when you come down to it! There’s even a scene in Rachel’s room, where the only other place that I can admit that I’ve seen a certain camera angle is from “Paranormal Activity.” But trust me, no creepiness here, just an inventive use of photography by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung.

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“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an undeniable crowd-pleaser that took this year’s Sundance Film Festival by storm, winning its two main prizes: the “Grand Jury” and “Audience” awards. I can surely understand the latter honor, as the film received a standing ovation at Sundance (and a round of applause at my theater as well). The reason that this motion picture has connected with audiences is because it expertly balances quirky comedy with emotion-laden drama. There is a time and a place for both in this movie, and it understands that well. This is a very touching film and I honestly challenge anyone to see it without feeling some sort of emotional connection to its characters or climax.

***1/2 (three and a half stars out of four)

 

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