A good showing at Sundance can turn a film from a personal project to a worldwide hit. The success of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reaches beyond ‘good’ to quite extraordinary; the film took both the Jury and Audience awards in the prestigious U.S. Dramatic section. Me and Earl will now show in cinemas around America and beyond, and viewers will be delighted with what they find.
Adapted from his own novel by Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl follows the senior year of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a young guy who is so keen to keep everyone at school on his side that he refrains from almost any notable action. Even Earl (RJ Cyler) is not a friend but a co-worker: they create sweet and amusing alterations of famous movies (example: A Sockwork Orange). Greg’s self-protective sphere is punctured when his mother makes him spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl from his year who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Rachel’s stoicism against her condition and Greg’s quirky personality begin to gel, and by getting close to someone Greg must change his social strategies.
Earl covers so many bases of 21st century life it is impossible to confine it to one genre. It is comedic; the first half in particular is chatty almost to a fault, but finds many rather droll lines along the way. It is a weepie – the final half hour is as powerful and emotional a conclusion as I have seen for a long time.
It also contains more niche aspects; teen groupings reminiscent of Mean Girls and Heathers, commentary on the social status of different American families, and a pleasing thread on the act of creation and making art. This multiplicity of subjects takes a while to settle, but ultimately provides a depth rarely found in films that are this funny and youthful.
The script turns from frivolous and fun to one of great resonance, and is performed with nuance by the cast. Mann has the right amount of everyperson about him to allow us to access the world through his experience. Olivia Cooke gives a beautiful performance as the unwell Rachel; she is funny and smart, but capable of a shattering vulnerability. Two scenes involving this pair in the latter half of the film were especially memorable, one of which lasts several minutes in one continuous shot. The supporting roles give substance beyond the two leads; newcomer Cyler is non-stop hilarious with brilliant deadpan timing. Nick Offerman does a nice twist on Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec, playing Greg’s dad less brusque & more aloof, a perfect foil for Connie Britton’s motherly ‘Greg’s Mom’ – yes, that is the character’s name. Mollie Shannon’s scene-stealing turn as Denise, Rachel’s mum, epitomises the film – she is hilarious as only Shannon can be, but also expresses heart-wrenching grief. Katherine Hughes makes something more of Madison Hartner than just Greg’s unattainable crush, and like the other younger cast members is surely here to stay.
The other great star of the film is Gomez-Rejon. Movies about teenagers are rarely known for their visuals but Me and Earl bucks that trend with increasing style as the plot progresses. It is the director’s second film, and although he is an experienced hand having worked with Scorcese and Ephron and directed episodes of both Glee and American Horror Story for TV, he has spoken about wanting to find his own voice in films. He has certainly done that here. Comparisons to The Fault In Our Stars do not do it justice; the dialogue and characters are wittier and far more recognisable, while the references to Herzog and Powell and Preessburger reveal a cinephile heart.
It earns its tears too. At Sundance, while drying my own eyes, I noticed the tough Australian bloke beside me was sporting even greater streams. Looking around me I became aware that huge swathes of the audience were responding similarly. I’ve never heard a reaction quite like it in a cinema – people were audibly sobbing. To inspire such visceral and universal reactions, and still make people leave with smiles on their faces, is testament to the quality of this remarkable film.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens today, Friday 12th June, in the U.S., then on 11th September in the UK. However UK viewers who cannot wait until then (& you don’t want to wait for this one) can catch a special showing as part of Film4’s Summer Screen season on Wednesday 19th August in the magnificent surroundings of London’s Somerset House. Tickets available here – but be quick, they’re going fast!
Check out the trailer below: