9 out of 10
Thomas Mann as Greg
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Greg (Thomas Mann) isn’t the most popular or coolest kid at his school, but he does okay by not hanging out with any one particularly group. When Greg’s mother forces him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg gets more distracted from his schoolwork and getting into college, as his new friendship creates friction with his long time filmmaking collaborator Earl (RJ Cyler).
(Note: A version of this review appeared as part of the writer’s Sundance Film Festival coverage back in January.)
Going into Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a change in gears for “American Horror Story” director Alfonso Gonzalez-Rejon, I didn’t realize it was adapted from a book by screenwriter Jesse Andrews, although it does seem to have a literary feel, even if on the surface, it seems like the type of coming-of-age high school movie we’ve seen coming out of the Sundance Film Festival countless times before.
In this case, it’s Thomas Mann’s Greg, the “me” in the title, a high school senior trying not to be lumped in with the rest of his school’s cliques, who is pressured by his mother to spend time with a classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia, thinking Greg’s presence will help cheer her up. Then there’s Earl (RJ Cyler), who Greg has known since they were both children. While he doesn’t consider Earl a “friend,” the two of them have been working on spoofs of classic films for many years, racking up quite a filmography of work with titles like “A Sockwork Orange” and “My Dinner with André the Giant.” Yeah, it sounds pretty silly on the surface, but it actually gives the movie a quirky feel that straddles the line between Be Kind Rewind and something like The Wackness, one that feels fresh and original despite the all-too-familiar setting.
Greg is quite a groundbreaking role for Mann, who has played more than his fair share of high schoolers. Greg could have been played any number of ways and felt like a stock teenager, his general attitude feeling all-too-representative of today’s youth, but Mann brings so much personality to the character that you’re immediately invested in his decisions, however bad they might seem.
Like Gomez-Rejon, Olivia Cooke has previously been doing a lot of horror in recent years, so it’s nice seeing her take on something more grounded that shows far more range and emotion, and she gives a marvelous and memorable performance. RJ Cyler is also a fantastic find who brings a lot of humor despite having less lines—when he opens his mouth, it’s usually quite significant.
One would think having comedy ringers like Nick Offerman as Greg’s father and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother would offer quirky characters that can make up for the lesser-known younger cast. (Offerman certainly took on that role in 2013’s The Kings of Summer, which failed to hit some of the same marks this film does so effortlessly.) They both have funny scenes, but in this case it just adds icing to the cake, since the three younger actors are all so good. The most surprising role in terms of the adults though is Jon Bernthal, playing against type as the boys’ tattooed history teacher McCarthy.
Maybe I have too much of a personal connection to leukemia to ignore one of the major things the movie botches, as it shows Rachel surrounded by flowers both at home and in the hospital. (Patients being treated for leukemia would not be allowed anywhere near plants.) That minor quibble is easily forgiven though as the way cancer affects those afflicted as well as those around them is handled perfectly, and any movie that increases knowledge and raises awareness on the different ways people deal with cancer. It’s maybe only slightly behind 50/50 in that regard.
As funny as the movie gets, things take a far more serious turn leading to a last act that bears more of a resemblance to The Fault in Our Stars. While Gomez-Rejon might be more known as a visual filmmaker, that doesn’t stop him from getting the best performances out of the cast, especially in these more dramatic moments.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl rarely goes in the direction you might expect and every element that has been established earlier, no matter how odd or quirky, does pay off in the last few minutes. It’s a payoff that’s well earned as well.
The Bottom Line:
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those movies you know will have a significant impact on anyone who watches it, regardless of whether they’ve been personally affected by cancer or not. It is one of those rare films that handles the disease in a respectful way rather than using it solely to manipulate emotions, and it’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.