If alarm bells go off at the description of the already preciously titled “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,” we wouldn’t blame you. Aggressively Sundance-y on paper — a quirky coming of age tale about a misfit teenager who doesn’t fit in, his unlikely black friend, and the terminally ill, cancer-ridden girl he befriends — one would be understanding of the reluctant viewer wary of indie movie clichés. Did we mention the eccentric animated asides and the cinephilia fetishim that runs throughout the picture? While “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” may scream at you to run in the opposite direction, the wonderfully funny, bittersweet, and inventive picture will headlock even the most cynical-hearted viewer and turn him or her into emotional mush.
Jesse Andrews‘ imaginative and clever script centers on Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an awkward teenager who’d rather remain anonymous than break from the pack of the high school social strata. Deeply self-critical, invisibility is Greg’s shield, but it distances himself from risk and connections. He refers to his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), as his co-worker for fear of rejection, and while his parents — the eccentric and dopey dad (Nick Offerman) and the overly-concerned mom (Connie Britton) — want him to consider college, Greg likes to keep the future at bay.
The closed-off parts of his life begin to develop and grow when his mom forces him to befriend Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a teenager in his school who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Initially, Rachel wants nothing to do with his pity until Greg clarifies: he’s only doing it because is mother is the “LeBron James of nagging.” And while the rest of the school is as deeply skeptical of his motivations as Rachel is, a deep and true friendship begins to emerge despite the cheeky and self-deprecating cards that appear throughout the film and suggest otherwise (“Day 117 Of Completely Doomed Friendship”).
Bristling with reflexive, self-conscious tangents and pop culture references (Pussy Riot and Werner Herzog among them), while these humorous elements threaten to overshadow the narrative, they are executed with such quick hilarity (reminiscent of the haste of Wes Anderson, but without the flavor of homage) they are a joy to witness. A scene where Greg and Earl “accidentally” get high is a laugh riot, and then there’s the cinephile obsessiveness.
Practically a side movie all to itself, one of the many delights of ‘Dying Girl’ is the foreign film fixation that Greg and Earl have that binds their friendship. The duo recreate their favorite cinema classics as puny and humorous little shorts: “Eyes Wide Butt,” “Senior Citizen Kane,” a riff on Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” called “Breath Less” (about guy who has to use an inhaler), and “Pooping Tom” (a play on Powell & Pressburger’s “Peeping Tom”). Again, maybe it sounds much too cutesy, but “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” is perhaps best defined by everything that shouldn’t work, but does with surprising richness.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who you would never guess in a million years comes from the world of macabre and horror — he directed the terror remake “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and several episodes of “American Horror Story“), ‘Dying Girl’ has its cute quirks, clever laughs, and creative asides, but ultimately it’s a very personal story and the filmmaker treats it as such. “After someone dies their story continues to unfold,” Greg’s empathetic and easy-going teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), says, and this is really the heart and emotionally thematic texture of the movie that Gomez-Rejon renders with aching wistfulness.
One of the many aces up the movie’s sleeve is the music and featured score cuts by ambient godfather Brian Eno. Gomez-Rejon liberally taps left-of-center, gauze-pop classics from Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science (aka four of the greatest weirdo pop records ever), so that certainly doesn’t hurt. Moreover, Eno himself composed some connective tissue score elements inspired from the musical hues of those seminal records. His slowly building, heart-swelling “The Big Ship” was always just sitting there just waiting to be used for the perfect, rain-the-house-down-in-tears emotional climax. And guess what? It’s used here, it’s flawless, and we can now take the song (and most of the others) off the cinematic shelf for good. They’re off limits.
Embracing and subverting clichés, while playing with the notions of an unreliable narrator in Greg, Jesse Andrew’s script is simply terrific, and Gomez-Rejon mostly directs the hell out of every scene. And yet, though it might just be the most purely enjoyable and movie movie of the festival, the film is not without its flaws. 105 minutes is just a bit too long, and these kinds of sweet, comedic indies do themselves better favor by hovering around 95 minutes. Like most Sundance films this year, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” seems to have three different endings, but fortunately the movie is so heartswirlingly winning it doesn’t hurt as much as it might.
Brimming with wit, crushing last-act melancholia, laughs, and poignant heart, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” is a spectacular delivery of tears, love and laughter, and a beautifully charming, captivating knock-out that asks us to keep the departed in our hearts and their narratives surging in our memories forever. [A-]