That’s my grade-A wordplay for people who will automatically dismiss director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL as another THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. It’s not. Far from it, in fact. You could say it’s the De-FAULT IN OUR STARS. Both films feature a girl with stage 4 cancer and were filmed in Pittsburgh. However, that’s where the similarities end. There’s no kissing in Anne Frank’s attic here! Based on Jesse Andrews’ novel, which he adapted for the screen, this coming-of-age romdram is chock full of heart, humor and honesty. Call it next level John Hughes. Call it resplendent. Call it the sleeper hit of the summer. It’s all of these things. Moreover, it’s destined to become a modern classic.
High schooler Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) thought his senior year was going to be a breeze. He’d done the impossible, managing to skate through those precarious teenage years by precisely constructing a well-ordered lifestyle. You see, he doesn’t identify with one particular group – he’s the cool guy everyman, having befriended just enough people in every clique to fly under the radar at school. He eats lunch in his tattooed history teacher’s (Jon Bernthal, in a thoughtful performance) office and considers his best friend Earl Jackson (RJ Cutler) to be more like a “co-worker,” as the dynamic duo make hilarious parodies of classic movies. But his favorite pastime seems to be avoiding having to talk about any real emotions. That’s about to change when he meets Rachel (Olivia Cooke, who’s incandescent at the art of suffering). Technically, she’s a manic pixie dream girl – albeit the most achingly angsty one ever portrayed. And rightfully so, as she’s dealing with a devastating diagnosis. She’s forced into our hero’s life by his (s)Mother (Connie Britton), and immediately turns Greg’s world upside down. Because of her, Greg’s carefully structured teenagedom morphs into chaos as Greg, Earl and Rachel strike up a special friendship.
Though it may take you a little while to get into Gomez-Rejon’s occasionally twee sensibilities and visual flourishes (such as the stop-motion animated sequences), don’t fret. You’ll soon find a wondrous visual narrative unfolding. The way he frames certain sequences says more about Greg and his worldview than any dialogue ever could; when Greg is being nagged by his mom to befriend Rachel, the tracking shot is oppressive and cumbersome, mirroring Greg’s feelings. It gives Iñárritu a run for his money. When Greg first visits Rachel, there’s a physical detachment evident with her in the power position of the frame, on top of the stairs. He’s gotta climb to reach her – literally and figuratively. When sitting in her small bedroom, there’s a wide chasm of space between the two, echoing the emotional distance. Production design also reinforces some of these ideas; when Greg and Rachel talk about college, the scene is set against large glass windows, indicating he’s being open and vulnerable. What’s even more astounding is that Gomez-Rejon does all of this with keen subtlety.
There’s a genuine Gondry-esque charm to the BE KIND REWIND influence of Greg and Earl’s films – which include Eyes Wide Butts, The 400 Bros and The Seven Seals. It’s also very funny. Earl’s obsession with “titties,” a hilarious shenanigan involving pho, and the class burn-out provide comic relief. Plus, the film’s sentiment that someone’s life continues to resonate long after they’re gone is something that hits like a bittersweet wallop. For anyone who’s dealt with grief, this rings true.
While the film is ingeniously conceived and very well-crafted, what’s slightly bothersome is Greg’s narration – particularly the way he frequently interrupts to urge us not to be troubled by Rachel’s diagnosis. While we understand this is Greg’s very specific coping mechanism, Gomez-Rejon has already shown us his protagonist’s denial of the inevitable through subtle visuals. It takes us out of the moment – a moment that would have had more potency without the pesky narration.
I worry that perhaps I’m underselling this fantastic film, which has so much to like about it. So let me end with this: Perhaps the most powerful thing about ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is that it’s not snarky, smarmy or saccharine – a great accomplishment given the milieu
4.5 out of 5
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL opens in limited release on June 12 with a slow roll out to follow. For where to find it playing, go here.