ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, and Connie Britton. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Rated M (Mature themes and Coarse language).105 min.
With its curiously resonant title, this American drama-comedy tells a coming-of-age story about a teenager, who is living a relatively meaningless existence, and who becomes involved with a girl diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, published in 2012, and it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Almost from its start, the film exposes us to the private thoughts of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), which is a device that attempts to do justice to the frustrations of adolescents growing up in a complicated world.
Greg is a young man, who lives his existence by mostly avoiding meaningful social contacts with anyone. He tells people what they want to hear without interacting with them, and he is anti-social by nature. He spends most of his time with Earl (RJ Cyler), and makes satirical parodies with him of avant-garde, movies like "The Third Man", "Clockwork Orange", and "Death in Venice". None of them are anything like the original, and they are retitled differently. "The Third Man" is redone by them as "The Thurd Man", "Clockwork Orange" becomes "Sockworth Orange", and "Death in Venice" becomes "Death in Tennis".
Greg has a wide social network, but he tries to make sure no one in his network really gets to know him, and he doesn't want attachments that might cause him disappointment. Even Earl - his black classmate, who lives in a tough neighbourhood -.is labelled by him as a "co-worker", not a friend.
One day, Greg is asked by his mother (Connie Britton) to be friendly to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate of his, who has been diagnosed with Leukaemia. He hasn't spoken to Rachel since kindergarten. He resents the request, and being nice to Rachel breaks his golden rule of never allowing himself to become involved.
Rachel and Greg start their visit together awkwardly and neither of them want each other's company, until they begin to like each other. Their relationship develops into something important for both of them. Friendship comes at a traumatic period in both their lives. Rachel's life is ebbing away, and Greg is desperately looking for a personal identity that gives some meaning to his existence. Along the way, the film naturally and comically, considers serious themes associated with life and death, and the movie's scripting by its Director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is excellent. The script is fast-paced, punchy, and witty.
Greg and Earl decide to make a film about Rachel, which she sees just before she dies. The film's cinematography captures the mood of the film perfectly, and it probes the emotional challenges associated with Rachel's life coming to an end, and the memories that Greg holds onto after Rachel has gone. The film, however, is as much about the joy of living, as it is about the sadness of dying. The last half of the film explores, movingly and intensely, the rich experiences of Rachel and Greg, and it manages to do that in an uplifting way.
The film is thought-provoking, and entertaining. It has surreal touches in its direction, presents odd characters, and it is funny and sad. Mortality, fear of intimacy, and the felt-inadequacies of growing up, are some of the themes it tackles with surprising authenticity. The acting by Mann and Cooke is marvellous. They both give a completely honest portrayal of the insecurities of growing up, and they project sensitively the development of their friendship, and the shared experience of loss.
This is an unusual film that richly deserves to be seen. It is quirky and affecting, and its fresh approach to adolescence is touching. The sad themes in it may create a feeling of discomfort at times, but the film reflects very insightfully on the meaning of life, and teaches us the value of forming genuinely human and loving attachments.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Twentieth Century Fox Films
Released September 3, 2015