In its slow, patient unspooling, the film’s very anti-genre resistance and restraint delivers a low-keyed catharsis, enhanced by Brian Eno’s ambient music
Emotion is a terrible thing. The “terminally awkward” protagonist of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Greg (Thomas Mann), spends a lot of his high school career avoiding its inevitable costs. He deflects it with barbed sarcasm and sends up classic art films with his colleague Earl (RJ Cyler), using stop-motion animation, to create silly Truffaut homages like “The 400 Bros.” When his mother (Connie Britton), the “Lebron James of nagging,” forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who’s been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg has no choice but to close the distance within.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews are all too aware of genre formulas. In a voiceover, Greg emphatically states that this isn’t “a touching, romantic story.” But in its slow, patient unspooling, the film’s very anti-genre resistance and restraint delivers a low-keyed catharsis, enhanced by Brian Eno’s ambient music. In large part, this is because Rachel is the fulcrum of the film’s eponymous trio. There’s a lovely scene where Rachel dominates the bedroom foreground as Greg looks on haplessly. As the son of a gourmand sociology professor (Nick Offerman), Greg is a middle-class adolescent who’s at once over-articulate and at a loss for words: “Cancer sucks.” He describes Earl as his “co-worker,” which Earl maintains is because he cannot admit to their friendship.
Earl is black and lives in a rougher Pittsburgh neighborhood, but he and Greg share a love of cinema. Frequent, hilarious allusions to German filmmaker Werner Herzog express Greg’s doomy angst. One of this film’s primary pleasures is the bond between Earl and Greg, a connection at once detached and prickly but always free of evasion, as Earl’s bluntness wouldn’t allow it. There’s an amusing scene where they accidentally get high on marijuana, but Earl maintains his cool. For Greg, Earl is a moral compass, and someone who clearly intuits Rachel’s genuineness beyond considerations of race and class.
Is this an idealization? I think not. One could argue that the Civil Rights movement was a watershed moment in 20th century American history. Mann and Cyler play out their friendship with the sort of guarded, tentative torpor that most American males will recognize. Earl breaks through Greg’s intellectualism with straight-up sex talk and truth-telling. The film’s rendering of high school as a war of contesting tribes is a familiar trope, but more disappointing (and familiar) are the cartoonish adult characters, like Greg’s hippie-ish dad and Denise (Molly Shannon), Rachel’s single mom with serious boundary issues. These are essentially stereotypes and, unlike the teenagers, the filmmakers do little to humanize them or disabuse the viewer of the notion that they’re anything other than grotesques. But I guess the sons must always rise up and slay their fathers. It’s ever been true, at least in America where elders are hardly esteemed.
Gomez-Rejon occasionally gets self-consciously arty with overhead shots and the like, but for the most part, he’s stylistically controlled and thankfully not at all slavishly imitative of the filmmakers that Greg and Earl parody. The payoff in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” comes in the form of Greg’s self-discovery and the knowledge that our lives are perpetually unfolding. He also proves an unreliable narrator, but that’s an acceptable literary device in books, of which this movie contains multitudes. Movies are a place where we all live in the dark, and sometimes we are replenished by tears that fall like rain.
Richard Oyama wonders what he’ll be when he grows up to be a man.
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