The breakout hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (former assistant to Martin Scorcese, director of many episodes of "Glee" and "American Horror Story") is easily one of the best films I have ever seen about the experience of being a teen.
Greg (Thomas Mann, "Project X", 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters") and his friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), both juniors at a pretty typical large crumbling high school, have been friends for years. But Greg refers to Earl as his co-worker - they have been making films together, parodies of classics they are exposed to by Greg's dad (Nick Offerman, TV's "Parks and Recreations") and their history teacher (Jon Bernthal, TV's "The Walking Dead"). As soon as they make the film - elaborate recreations sometimes involving intricate models and miniature work - they shelve them, openly denigrating their quality and they let almost no one see them. One day, Greg's mom (Connie Britton, TV's "American Horror Story", "Friday Night Lights", "Nashville") asks Greg to reach out to Rachel (Olivia Cooke, "Ouija", TV's "Bates Motel"), the daughter of a friend (Molly Shannon, TV's "Saturday Night Live"), who was recently diagnosed with cancer. The typical teen in Greg doesn't want to have anything to do with this set-up. But the better part of Greg reluctantly agrees. They soon become friends. And Rachel becomes interested in their films.
Written by Jesse Andrews (and based on his own novel) and directed by Gomez-Rejon, "Dying Girl" is a remarkably insightful film filled with true and interesting performances. It makes a small misstep, but that seems insignificant in light of all of the other good stuff happening throughout.
Told with first-person narration, Me - or Greg - introduces us to his world, which is the large, hulking, deteriorating building of his high school. He introduces us to all of the groups of students, pointing out each clique - including details on why he doesn't fit in - which helps us understand more about Greg and how he and Earl ended up spending so much time with their history teacher. Then, when he returns home, we see the big, hulking, deteriorating house he shares with his parents. They are not traditional and Greg's dad stays home all day, wearing a bathrobe, cooking exotic food. Greg is a typical teenager, which means he is so confused by his life he simply has difficulty coping, so he spends a lot of his time on the films he and Earl make.
When he meets Rachel, his already confusing world doesn't get any less confusing. With college looming, Greg's attention towards his studies becomes even more diluted.
The films that Greg and Earl make are really fun - we are allowed to see short snippets - "Senior Citizen Kane", "Vere D'Go", "Mano Rash", etc. - and they are exactly what you would expect a pair of teenagers, eager and willing to devote every waking moment to, would make. Then, one day, a friend suggests Greg and Earl make a film for Rachel and this seems to throw them for a loop. They are already super critical of their own films, how will they ever make anything worthy of showing Rachel? And should it be a 'tribute', acknowledging the gravity of her illness, which they don't want to do? A tribute to a terminally ill friend? How will they do it?
The actors are all great. Thomas Mann is particularly good bringing Greg to life. His is a teenager we probably all know or can identify with. I'll raise my own hand. Prone to moments of drama, he is really a good, if conflicted, kid who just needs more of a firm hand, stronger guidance. RJ Cyler makes Earl the nerdy, gangly kid who obsesses about movies more than anything else. Olivia Cooke does an admirable job of bringing all of the conflicting emotions and trials of Rachel to life. Teenage angst intensified by the fact that she really is dying makes the challenge for Cooke to create someone that doesn't seem too showy even greater. But she manages to pull it off.
Jon Bernthal, a popular character and TV actor, plays the cool, hip history teacher who befriends Greg and Earl, giving them a sanctuary in which to practice their geekdom. His eccentricities prove to be too much for their young minds, leading them to jump to some strange conclusions about their history teacher. As mentioned, Connie Britton and Nick Offerman play Greg's parents, providing him with probably too light a style of discipline. These are the type of people who still shop at bookstores and Dad still peruses DVDs and VHS tapes that might help further his son's addiction to film. And Molly Shannon plays Rachel's mom. Shannon is a revelation. From the moment she first appears, you half expect her to break out into one of her crazy acts - "Superstar" - but she is clearly using the bit of this we do see in her performance as a shield to protect herself from the fact her child is dying. Every time she appears, she obviously wants to smother Greg and Earl with attention, the attention she wants for herself, the attention she probably wants to give her daughter.
Gomez-Rejon has the good sense to simply get out of the way and let the story unfold in a natural-ish way. Yes, there are moments when he uses camera moves and editing that are a little out there - when he is trying to replicate Greg's obsession with film - but most of the time, the techniques aren't crazy enough to call attention to themselves. This is a great way to lull us into thinking we are a part of the lives of some 'real' teens.
Because the film is told with first-person narration, and Greg is obsessed with classic and foreign films, there are moments when the narrative takes on the style of these artistic influences. An early scene, when Greg is clearly not going to have anything to do with his mom's suggestion that he spends some time with Rachel, becomes a homage to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" complete with music and camera angles. This happens a few more times, but it also seems to get lost and the idea is abandoned. Because Greg is your typical obsessive teenager, it would seem more appropriate for more of this to happen, for more of his life to be as dramatic as the films he recreates.
As Greg and Rachel become better friends, and spend more time together, this also serves to make Greg even less motivated to do his school work. This provides both a complication to his life and a way for Rachel to help influence him.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is very good and makes me want to see more of the director's work. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.