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Heart and Humor: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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.

Me and Early and the Dying Girl-1

Photo by Anne Marie Fox – Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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