‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is an instant coming-of-age classic

June 13, 2015, 10:26 a.m.

Director Alfonso Gómez-Rejón’s second feature, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to rapturous praise, is both masterful and heartwarming in its depiction of American adolescence. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” shines as a result of its stellar performances, clever use of dialogue and quirky style. The film displays such originality and inventiveness in its form that it is almost hard to believe that its screenplay is an adaptation of novelist Jesse Andrews’s debut book of the same name. In brief, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a dazzling and touching coming-of-age story with enough buzz to promise a firm standing as a longtime favorite.

Self-described as “terminally awkward,” Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is not your typical high school senior. As a means of social survival, he refuses to belong to any particular group or clique (think “Mean Girls”); instead, he tries his hardest not to get in other people’s way, playing the nice guy card almost religiously. With his only real friend, Earl (Ronald Cyler II), he makes low-budget film parodies of the classics, including such puntastic titles as “A Sockwork Orange” and “Pooping Tom.” Greg’s life is thrown into disarray, however, when, after much insistence from his mom (Connie Britton), Greg reaches out to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate with leukemia. Much to their joint surprise, the two — ultimately along with Earl — become good friends. In an attempt to brighten her cancer-ridden days, Greg and his pal decide to make a short film for Rachel.

For all its majesty and greatness, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” would potentially fall flat if not for the film’s many gifted actors. In his actuation of  self-loathing young adulthood, Mann makes viewers not only firmly believe in his cause as a misfit, but empathize with his tacit yearning for friendship and belonging. Not far behind, Cyler creates a persona, so sensitive and self-sufficient, that when juxtaposed next to his best friend, Cyler produces a partnership that feels right and real. Even a secondary character like Rachel’s mom, Denise Kushner (Molly Shannon), delivers her lines skillfully and comically.

Yet, the acting performances are not what make the movie most standout — instead, humor and its intimate connection with various visual features are what make it sparkle. From verbal jokes to goofy slapstick reminiscent of older Sundance favorites (like “Garden State”), comedy is showcased in a myriad of ways. Perhaps more importantly, the witty dialogue — usually spawning from Greg, the film’s protagonist — is blended with unconventional film techniques, including bizarre and spacious perspectives, as well as self-aware stagings from the cameraman. There are even some stop-motion scenes at the beginning of the movie. These stylistic choices all add to the peculiar idiosyncratic texture of the film; it effectively builds a world of its own, in which strange and even bizarre situations can actually become quite normal.
All in all, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an exuberant and heartwarming success in its authentic portrayal of high school life and growing up. Cleverly scripted, adroitly performed, and remarkably stylized, Gómez-Rejón’s festival darling is sure to become a beloved millennial-generation feelgood classic.

Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ena Alvarado hails from the boisterous city of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a hopelessly undecided freshman who enjoys reading literature and watching films as much as understanding science and studying math. Someday, Ena aspires to learn how to whistle, improve her current juggling skills, and compose a full-length music album. In the meantime, she finds solace in books and nutella crepes. Writing about documentaries and foreign cinema never hurts either.

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