Self-loathing and insecurity are symptoms as definitive of adolescence as growth spurts and acne. Movies that explore the treacherous process of growing up are a dime a dozen, but few recent efforts encapsulate the layered fears that accompany the coming of age experience with as much wit and depth as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl."
For 17-year-old Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), being social is more stressful than satisfying, his immense self-consciousness crushing any desire to form lasting relationships. His sole companion is his coworker Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he's been making whimsical adaptations of classic films since childhood with titles like "49th Parallelogram" and "It’s a Punderful Life." While Greg just wants to make it through his senior year as inconspicuously as possible, his mother soon tramples on his plans to maintain a friendly distance when she insists that he spend time with Rachel, a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. He reluctantly agrees, and a grudging, clumsy first encounter quickly blossoms into a relationship that he never imagined he could participate in.
Sparkling with smart humor, brutal honesty, and imaginative cinematography that includes constant visual surprises, "Earl" is not your stereotypical, maudlin young adult romance —in fact, that angle is deliberately underplayed, with Greg reminding us at regular intervals that this isn't a "sappy love story."
That may be true, but the characters are too lovable not to be infectious. Virtually squirming in his own skin, Greg's teen conundrums are universally relatable, and Mann infuses his neuroses with endearing honesty.
While Greg's self-deprecating tendencies need a boost of confidence, they're a welcome distraction for Rachel, who could use a few laughs to take her mind off her dim prognosis. But Gomez-Rejon's profound grasp of Jesse Andrews' multi-dimensional screenplay ensures that "Me and Earl" doesn't snowball into a pity party. As Rachel tests Greg in ways he’s never been stretched and pushes him to confront realities he has determinedly avoided so far, he stands to gain the most from their interactions. Their relationship goes beyond simple friendship or sexual chemistry — the first real connection Greg has made that doesn't rely on his usual defense mechanisms.
"Quirkiness," that increasingly common trait to films catered to young adults, can often feel like a superfluous frill. But here, it's an effective storytelling tool. Narrated from the perspective of a social hermit like Greg, whose modes of self-expression are unfiltered one minute and heavily-censored the next, a straightforwardness narrative would seem out of place. Spurts of appropriately-timed animation, chapters titles like "The Part Where I Panic Out of Sheer Awkwardness," and innovative camerawork by "Oldboy" cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung — which lurches erratically to right-angled perspectives — only heighten the visual extension of Greg's multi-dimensional teen psyche.
But none of the stylistic flourishes would work if not for the spectacular cast, whose sincere performances imbue the screenplay with authenticity despite its eccentricities. The three leads approach their roles with rare maturity, juggling comic timing with sensitivity for the more somber elements without missing a beat; Cyler in particular stands out as Earl, Greg's creative wingman and voice of reason, often serving as a simultaneous slap-in-the-face and grounding force during Greg’s reflexive retreats into isolation.
There is no doubt that "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" will hold major commercial potential post-Sundance. But don't let the numbers game steal the focus from the real takeaway: Poignant without being melodramatic, overflowing with unforced charm, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" holds a unique appeal that's certain to last.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release the film later this year.