Just when you think you’ve seen all the variations on young love, teenage misfits, and off-kilter relationships, along comes a film that’s fresh, original and touching. No wonder Me and Earl and the Dying Girl earned both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Jesse Andrews adapted his own novel for the screen, which has been brought to life with equal parts empathy and whimsy by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. (Is it coincidental that this empathetic film about young people is set in Pittsburgh, which also inspired Stephen Chbosky’s novel and film Perks of Being a Wallflower?)
From the opening first-person narration—illustrated with clay animation—to a parade of movie parodies made by the protagonist and his “co-worker” Earl, Me and Earl marches to its own distinctive drum.
Thomas Mann plays Greg, the protagonist/narrator who explains that he has found a way to fit in with all the subcultures at his suburban high school by maintaining glib, superficial “relationships” with these disparate groups and individuals. But Greg’s character is only fooling himself, because he has no real friends except Earl (RJ Cyler), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who helps him make clever home movies that they put on a shelf and never show anyone.
Then Greg’s mother (the always-solid Connie Britton) hears that a girl in his class named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia and insists that Greg hang out with her. He doesn’t want to, and she doesn’t welcome his forced attention, but as they reluctantly spend time together a real friendship blossoms. She values his wit and empathy, and he enjoys her humor and good company, in spite of the pain she’s enduring.
This basic outline is fleshed out with interesting and offbeat characters, including Greg’s kooky father, a professor who never leaves the house and wears eccentric outfits (Nick Offerman), a simpatico schoolteacher (Jon Bernthal) who gives Greg and Earl privacy and encouragement in his office lair, and Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon), whose emotions are right on the surface, liable to overflow at any given moment.
The quirky tone of the film is perfectly supported by its innovative visuals, including Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography and the music by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly. Everything is perfectly orchestrated in this poignant film; nothing seems arbitrary or out of place. That’s a rare achievement for a team of young filmmakers and all the more reason to celebrate Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.