During the summer blockbuster season, it’s easy for smaller, more offbeat and adventurous movies to get lost in the shuffle. Every Tuesday for six weeks, local film writer and alumnus Paul Matwychuk (’93 English & Film Studies, ’98 LLB) will come to your aid by highlighting a cinematic “hidden gem”— a movie that deserves your attention, even if you might not be aware it exists.
Now here’s a movie that presents me with a dilemma. I spent most of my time watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl acutely aware of everything that was wrong with it — or at least the aspects that a movie critic could easily seize upon to justify giving it a negative review. The characters are self-consciously, even gratingly, quirky. The visual style is highly derivative — director Alfonso Gomez-Rijon (a TV veteran with multiple episodes of American Horror Story and Glee under his belt) has clearly made a close study of his Wes Anderson Blu-Rays, and carefully replicates Anderson’s way of arranging his actors into symmetrical tableaus, dressing them up in retro costumes, and filling the screen with artfully curated props and bits of whimsical bric-a-brac. And the decision to build the plot around the friendship between a teenaged boy and a beautiful classmate dying of leukemia? My God, is it possible to concoct a more shamelessly sentimental premise for a movie?
And yet, I can’t deny that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got to me. The rational part of my moviegoing brain resisted it all the way, and yet by the time the final scene was over… well, there must have been some kind of malfunction with the ventilation system at the theatre where I saw it because all of a sudden, it got really, really dusty in there.
The “me” in the movie’s title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a Pittsburgh high school senior who prides himself on his ability to avoid emotional attachments with anyone at the school. (He’s even figured out a way to avoid being labelled “antisocial” by maintaining nodding acquaintanceships with just about every clique in the school.) The only person at school he hangs out with is a kid named Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short films spoofing famous arthouse movies — but even there, he avoids calling Earl a friend and prefers the term “co-worker” instead.
Let’s see… who am I leaving out? Oh, right — the dying girl. That would be Rachel (Olivia Cooke), Greg’s former childhood friend, who has begun chemotherapy treatments and is feeling understandably depressed about life. Greg very reluctantly agrees to begin hanging out with her again under pressure from his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, perhaps the two greatest parental figures in recent TV history), and slowly finds his time with Rachel becoming the most important part of his life. Refreshingly, Greg and Rachel don’t fall in love — Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reminds me a little of the terrific 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the way it suggests that companionship and mutual emotional support can be more important to teenaged boys and girls than romance.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t exactly take place in the real world. This is sort of a YA-novel alternate universe where teenaged boys are more interested in making their own versions of Fellini and Kurosawa films than getting drunk or chasing girls. But I think there is a genuinely powerful emotional undertow to this story, especially in the surprisingly raw scenes where Earl and Rachel confront Greg about his selfishness and his privilege as a young, healthy, white male. It’s a rarity: it’s like My Girl for people who own a lot of Criterion DVDs.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is playing at Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre Edmonton.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rijon. Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.