Friday, June 26, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: A celebration of life and love

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional coarse language and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.15

Little movies, absent shrieking publicity campaigns, have the potential to become unexpected treasures ... and this is one of the best I’ve seen in awhile.

After dryly dispensing another nugget of bewildering, utterly useless "advice," Greg's
father (Nick Offerman, center) offers his newest culinary nightmare — pig's feet — to
Greg (Thomas Mann, right) and Earl (RJ Cyler)
Every generation gets its share of heartfelt dramas purporting to reflect the high school experience; some become classics, embraced by their target audiences due to a savvy blend of snarky wit and often uncomfortable intimacy. The modern cycle probably began with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, while more recent examples include Juno, Rocket Science and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s touching rendition of Jesse Andrews’ impressive writing debut — the Salinger-esque young adult novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — belongs in their company. With the leaders of the pack.

Andrews has adapted his own book here, and it’s hard to know where to begin, with respect to the film’s many highlights. The casting is excellent, from the spot-on main characters to the off-center adults orbiting around them: the latter a droll touch, since teens always believe that adults inhabit an entirely different universe.

The dialogue is sharp and well delivered, the mordant, angst-ridden tone a painful reminder of high school disenfranchisement. This is also one of very few films to make excellent use of its main character’s off-camera commentary: reflections and asides — complete with narrative subtitles — that genuinely advance the storyline, as opposed to merely re-stating the obvious.

My favorite bit, though, has to be Andrews’ scathing, drop-dead-perfect description of high school’s clique-ish nature, as explained by the morose Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a quiet, withdrawn kid who has made an art of navigating the social minefield by remaining as anonymous as possible. I couldn’t begin to do justice to Greg’s dissection of his school’s various factions, and paragraphs would be wasted in a failed attempt.

Besides which, that would spoil your delight upon hearing this discerning, mocking analysis from Greg’s own lips.

Before reaching that point, though, viewers must navigate the rather bizarre waters of Greg’s introduction to his own story: the saga of his senior year in high school, introduced with an unexpected blend of dour self-loathing and ... stop-motion animation. The “look” of the latter feels much like a Wes Anderson project, which makes sense; this film is co-produced by Jeremy Dawson, whose career began in animation, and who has collaborated with Anderson several times, notably on Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Granted, this is a bit much to absorb right off the bat, but roll with it; there’s a method to Rejon and Andrews’ madness, and you’ll soon realize that these faux-clumsy, stop-motion touches have a purpose, and blend smoothly with what is to come.

Greg is recounting the events of the previous year from a later vantage point, looking back; like most of us, he’s not the most organized narrator, jumping from one detail to another, rather than proceeding in a strictly linear fashion. We therefore get the relevant details in fits and starts, beginning with his utterly hopeless parents.

Mom (Connie Britton) is a hectoring micro-manager of her only son’s life, to the point of driving the poor kid into frustrated fury. Dad (Nick Offerman, deadpan hilarious) is the exact opposite: a trés weird apparition clad in a bathrobe at all hours, infamous for hideous culinary creations, who dispenses what he believes is sage wisdom that draws only baffled stares.

Dad always seems to be home, despite his supposed full-time job: a magic trick he pulls off because he’s a tenured sociology professor at a nearby college.

All by itself, that’s both a marvelous one-liner and a biting social observation. Andrews’ script is full of such witticisms, landing so rapidly at times that you’ll need to watch this film at least twice, because audience laughter will bury too much dialogue the first time.

Greg’s only companion is the laconic Earl (RJ Cyler), a far more savvy kid who regards our hero with stone-faced amusement, cutting to the core of any issue with a few breathtakingly blunt words. Greg, so pathologically withdrawn that he refuses to even use the term “friend,” regards Earl as his “co-worker.”

Whatever the label, the boys have hung out together for a decade and change, enduring Greg’s father’s bizarre food creations, watching obscure foreign and arthouse films, and — here’s the kicker — making their own amateur movies. Their gimmick involves linguistically twisting the titles of existing highbrow classics, and then fashioning satirical storylines that reference the originals: a scheme, as Greg cheerfully confesses in voiceover, guaranteed to produce awful results.

Maybe so. To our eyes, though, these amateur creations are side-splitting, their blend of live action, sock puppets and papier-mâché animation wreaking havoc in projects ranging from The Seven Seals and A Sockwork Orange to Breathe Less and My Dinner with Andre the Giant. Best of all, these fleeting glimpses of the Greg-and-Earl oeuvre often are accompanied by music from the lampooned originals.

The point here is that Greg’s self-mocking analysis of his own saga is flippant and airy by design ... until, suddenly, it isn’t. Which is pretty much the self-defensive approach taken by all folks too terrified to confront their actual feelings, until being overwhelmed by them.

Things turn serious when Greg learns that a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Despite the fact that Greg has no history with this girl, and doesn’t even really know her to say hello, his Mom insists that it would be a “good thing” if he spent some time with her. Showed her that he cared. Which, of course, he doesn’t ... so what good would that do?

But Mom is not to be denied, and so Greg shambles over to Rachel’s house, where he first must navigate past her mother: a mildly inebriated and awkwardly friendly figure (Molly Shannon) who makes us all uncomfortable. Until we recognize this self-defensive misery for what it is.

Rachel, perceptive girl, wants nothing to do with Greg; “pity hang-time” is worse than a pity date. But Greg fears his mother’s disappointed censure more than Rachel’s mildly angry rejection, and so he refuses to leave.

“If this were a classic love story,” Greg’s off-camera self observes, certain predictable things would happen as a result of this initial encounter. But it isn’t that sort of story, as he keeps reminding us, and that’s the truth: Andrews’ script — and Gomez-Rejon’s film — are much smarter than that.

Mann, anchoring this film with a breakout performance certain to make him a solid Hollywood force, is blessed with an expressive face that speaks volumes in complete silence. Greg is self-denial personified: a kid so wrapped up in not “posing” that he fails to recognize that social isolation has made him miserable.

We spend the entire movie waiting for him to smile, and I’m not sure he ever really does. But we’re no less certain about his regrets, fears and heartache ... and by the fact that he quickly grows to adore and even love Rachel, although he’d likely never admit it. And probably lacks the words to do so anyway.

Mann’s impressively layered performance is riveting; merely watching him stand, immobile, trying to determine how to react to something Rachel has just said, is a pageant of emotional torment.

Cooke’s work is equally subtle and compelling. Rachel is by turns wary, effervescent and vulnerable. We know that she can see through Greg’s artifice, but for the most part she allows him the dignity of believing that she doesn’t. Because we only see Rachel through Greg’s eyes, Cooke has an extremely difficult assignment: to convey this girl’s warmth and emotional complexities in response to his input. She succeeds brilliantly.

We’ve been hit with a minor epidemic of teen “death drama” adaptations lately, with skilled young actresses navigating the morose waters of big-screen versions of If I Stay and The Fault in Our Stars. Cooke’s sensitive performance here, though, is its own unique creation: proof, once again, that acting talent can overcome a role that veers dangerously close to cliché.

The stone-faced Cyler is a hoot as Earl: another deftly shaded performance that relies heavily on well-timed silence, before the arrival of a brief but oh-so-perceptive remark. Katherine C. Hughes makes a memorable “agent of destruction” as Madison, one of the school’s highly dangerous girls because, in Greg’s eyes, she’s cute enough to wrap any guy around her little finger.

Jon Bernthal, recognized from TV’s The Walking Dead, pops up as Greg’s way-cool, heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy: the sort of instructor we’d kill to have had, during our own tempestuous high school career. Bernthal nails his character’s blend of acceptance and understanding, allowing Greg and Earl to hang out in his office, and granting both the space to be themselves, and find their own way. No surprise, then, that Mr. McCarthy — despite his own eccentricities — is this story’s lone “serious” adult.

It’s difficult to know where this story is heading, and you’re better off going with the flow, rather than trying to figure it out. Greg tells us one thing; Andrews’ script suggests other possibilities; Gomez-Rejon’s often schizophrenic tone seems to further muddy the waters ... until it doesn’t.

Things build to a powerful climax, and a last-minute reveal, that you’ll never see coming: one that produces an emotional wallop that will linger for days, months, perhaps even years.

This is one for the ages. Expect copies of Andrews’ book to fly off the shelves, and/or into your electronic gadget of choice.

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