Movie Review – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

EXPECTATIONS: Another typical terminal cancer film that hides its manipulative ways with excessive quirkiness. But it has Park Chan-Wook collaborator, Chung Chung-Hoon as cinematographer?!?!

REVIEW: If you seen as many terminal cancer films or disease-of-the-week films as I have, especially films from South Korea, you have a tendency to guess where the film is going and there’s very little the filmmakers can do in terms of innovation to make you forget the predictability. You can have excellent acting and bring a new fresh coat of paint to it all but deep down, the cliches and formalities are still there. I wasn’t that familiar with the cast although I saw Thomas Mann in the crappy Project X and Olivia Cooke in Bates Motel, I saw one of the director’s work, the remake/sequel The Town that Dreaded Sundown. I thought it was a visually stimulating film that made the slasher genre alive again until its anticlimactic ending. So when I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I expected something along those lines with a problematic script. Fortunately, all those positives I mentioned are there but there are other fantastic elements that are nostalgic, subversive or just plain clever that makes the story seem fresh again.

Thomas Mann stars as Greg, an awkward and self-loathing senior who just drifts through high school without socializing with any of the school cliques and gets by with his childhood “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) who make amateur parodies of classic films; and his unorthodox teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). He hears that his other estranged childhood friend, Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed of leukemia, and is forced by his quirky parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to visit her for moral support. Obviously not wanting each others company, they gradually bond over time and have an unexpected friendship, especially when Earl shows Rachel the amateur films, despite Greg’s reluctance. Over time, Rachel’s condition worsens as she begins chemotherapy, Greg decides to spend more time with her and less time on his high school studies. As the whole school learns of Rachel’s condition, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) a crush of Greg’s convinces him to make a film for Rachel, but Greg’s selfishness gets in the way to the point that it tests his friendship with Rachel.

First things first, this is not a romance, so there is no Florence Nightingale syndrome influence or any of the romantic cliches that would recall Nicholas Sparks, which I am truly grateful of. This is a coming-of-age tale of friendship and a good one at that. The actors are all fantastic in portraying their characters, that they come off as real people instead of characters that could only come from a script. Thomas Mann is  great as Greg, who shows a sloppy likability to him despite being selfish and he becomes more sympathetic as the film paces along, with his character development from self-loathing to caring; is convincing. RJ Cyler is charismatic as the seemingly one-joke (about breasts) Earl and his act as a moral compass to Greg as well as comic relief, makes him very entertaining. But the standout is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Not thinking of her much in the terrible horror film, Ouija, she gives a refreshing performance that subverts the “cancer victim” archetype, never feeling weighed down or feeling sorry for herself and she has a charming presence. Her commitment to the role also pays off like how she shaved her head for the role and her performance in the later stages of the film shows she’s got dramatic chops.

The supporting cast are fine in their roles, with Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal adding amusement and Katherine C. Hughes breaking the “hot, yet vapid chick” archetype by adding humanity to her part. Molly Shannon was a surprise in the film as she displays both comedic chops (as she’s primarily known for) and her dramatic chops (especially in the scene where she’s involved in an interview) as Rachel’s mother. This wasn’t the first time I saw her in a dramatic role (like her creepy character in the TV series, Hannibal), but I hope people would give her a chance to do more parts like this, like how Kathryn Hahn was in the horror flick, The Visit.

As for the technical qualities, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, as I’ve seen in his horror remake/sequel, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, is a very visual director. And he brings that touch to here to great effect, showing high school life as energetic, off-kilter yet still relatable to witness. Gomez-Rejon knows especially when to pull back and let the scene flow naturally and it pays off with its best scenes, like a confrontational scene between Greg and Rachel that plays in one single take. The cinematography from Park Chan-Wook collaborator, Chung Chung-Hoon (of all people!) is fantastic, especially when we see the amateur film parodies. Film buffs (like me) will especially enjoy these moments sprinkled throughout the film, that recalls the low-fi nostalgia of Be Kind, Rewind.

The story is also told in a refreshing way, that has no heart-tugging moments or any excessive melodrama and not even the use of any sappy music. The characters and their portrayals that makes the story touching as it is, but it’s the humourous approach to the story that makes the film stand out. The amateur film parodies are hilarious (even if you don’t know them) and Greg’s lack of social skills pay off with many funny moments, especially when he says things that no pitying human would say. Earl’s comic relief syncs up with Greg’s self-loathing well and the chemistry between Greg and Rachel is great, particularly when they reference pillows or even make fun of Rachel’s condition, without sounding mean.

The film however has some weaknesses, mainly due to the quirkiness being a bit too much, especially in its first act (the use of Vietnamese Beef Noddle Soup was a bit random, so was Hugh Jackman) but the film is a very entertaining watch due to its subversiveness of terminal cancer films, high school films and the wonderfully likable characters and performances. I was surprised that the film didn’t make me consider killing myself. There’s one film this year that made me consider that, but that’s another review.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Wonderful visual style

Great subversiveness towards its own genres

Many film moments for cinephiles

Humanistic touch adds poignancy without feeling fake

CONS

The quirkiness and visuals can be a bit excessive

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriters: Jesse Andrews

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