For several years now the independent movie scene has offered up some of the better and more intelligent teen movies in ages. Mainstream studios continue to milk every current fad as evident by the steady flow of teen dystopian flicks and rocks-for-brains raunchy comedies. But independent cinema continues to provide a platform for unique voices and perspectives.
A more recent example comes in the form of the awkwardly titled, conjuction-heavy “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”. It’s a film that straddles so many fine lines. At different points it flirts with being too whimsical, too weepy, too self-aware, too hip, or too cliché. Miraculously it balances itself well throughout its journey from breezy, stylistic comedy to sensitive, bittersweet drama.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs the film which is based on Jesse Andrews debut novel (Andrews also wrote the screenplay). Thomas Mann plays Greg, the ‘Me’ in the story. He is a demure and self-loathing high school senior who manages his outcast status by subtly mingling with every social group at school but never truly connecting with any of them. His one friend is the brusque and outspoken Earl (RJ Cyler), although Greg doesn’t call him a friend. He’s a “co-worker”. The two spend their time making crappy short films which are parodies of all kinds of classic movies.
The “Dying Girl” is Rachel (quietly yet keenly played by Olivia Cook) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s insistent mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with Rachel which eventually sparks the reluctant friendship at the center of this film. The relationship becomes therapeutic for both of them providing a refuge from each of their very different personal ills. We’re tossed a curveball or two which keeps this from being just another teen cancer picture even after the story takes a slightly more serious tone.
But unlike the good but hankie-heavier “The Fault in Our Stars”, this movie relies on its sense of humor and attitude. One of its strengths is how it both highlights and irreverently squashes all of our conversational timidity and awkwardness when it comes to such weighty subjects as cancer. We get conversations rich with witty back-and-forths and uncomfortable honesty.
As hard as it tries to be unique and subversive, certain elements of it will undoubtedly feel familiar. And sometimes you can sense it trying hard to be stylish and to show off its pop culture coolness. But Gomez-Rejon deserves a ton of credit. He avoids so many of the trappings that would make this an easy film to dismiss. Instead he gives us something that is genuinely witty while never compromising its earnestness. It’s a story with a lot to say about the value of true friendship and it’s not ashamed to tackle a difficult subject in its own personal way. I kinda like that boldness.
VERDICT – 4 STARS