DARKLY FUNNY and surprisingly profound, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature is a real gem. If nothing else, it at least had my favourite film title of the year. It is a fresh take on this new wave of young adult weepies - The Fault In Our Stars, Now Is Good, and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Flms in this subgenre have been more hit than miss but are we getting to a saturation point of watching beautiful young people die?
The movie follows Greg Gains, the Me in the title, who (unreliably ) narrates the story of his final year in high school. He is a social chameleon, gets on with every subculture in high school, from the nerds to the jocks, but is a member of none. His one true friend, although Greg refuses to call him that, is Earl. They had completely different upbringings but bonded over Werner Herzog movies and other avant garde cinema.
When Greg’s mother learns one of his classmates has been diagnosed with leukemia she forces him to visit her. Through early awkward exchanges (Greg even admits he’s only hanging out with her to get his mother off his back ) a genuine friendship is formed. Rather than Greg helping Rachel deal with her cancer, it is she who shows him the benefits of making connections and looking beyond himself. From this brief synopsis it sounds like a generic teen movie full of cliches and life affirming speeches. But there is something special here:
This is a tightly scripted, sharpley edited, movie with some really great performances, Greg's parents in particular, played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, are wonderfully earnest and hilarious without being annoying. The hippy/awkward parents role has been done to death to death since Eugene Leavy perfected it in American Pie, but Britton and Offerman actually manage something fresh here. They are likable and funny without being goofy. I’m not sure if it was budgetary reasons to not go with name actors for the three leads but the three young actors are really fantastic. Olivia Cook, best known from Bates Motel, who plays Rachel, is the most believable cancer patient I have seen on screen; Rachel actually looks like a cancer patient. I still cringe when I think of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge daintily coughing up blood like she’s clearing her throat as she dies from consumption.
Greg is a likeable lead with some truly unlikeable traits, a tough role for Thomas Mann. He’s a typical male teenager, he hates himself and is entirely self obsessed. Rachel's fear of death is mirrored by Greg’s fear of leaving high school and committing to relationships, and seeing her face up to her mortality, while shooting a mini documentary for Rachel, leads to life lessons learned in an endearing and not in anyway cheesy.
For audiences who liked The Fault In Our Stars but found it a little melodramatic, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just what you are looking for. It is rare to see such a well acted, well thought out, and well directed film, from a relatively unknown cast and director.