Mixing comedy and drama is one of the hardest things to get right in cinema. Too far one way and the film could turn out far too sappy, thus turning it into something of a joke. Too far in the other direction and the drama may get drowned out, thus losing its effect. However, when the two are blended in just the right proportions, something magical happens, something like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (who also penned the screenplay), the film tells the story of a young man, Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school student whose favorite pastime involves making self-proclaimed bad parody films with his friend (or “co-worker” as he calls him) Earl (RJ Cyler). When his mother informs him that a fellow student, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has cancer and asks him to go hang out with her, he is hesitant due to being acquainted with her only a little and simply not knowing how to handle such a difficult situation.
After even more insistence from his mother, he finds himself over at Rachel’s house, slowly breaking the ice and getting to know her better. This initial meeting leads to them hanging out a lot more, turning their mere acquaintance into a very special friendship as Rachel continues going through her painful treatments. At the insistence of another friend, he agrees to make a film for Rachel, but he quickly finds that such a task is not going to be easy, especially with the difficult nature in trying to communicate what he wants to say through a medium that he has merely used as a tool for making parodies of classic films. However, he doesn’t let this stop him from striving on, even as it (along with his relationship with Rachel) begins to consume his life.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is one of those films that really makes you appreciate the smaller projects that come out each year. There are no fancy effects propping it up, no fancy camera work, just a brilliantly-written script and some marvelous performances. Andrews injects the film with a hefty dose of comedy, much of it of a dark nature, but with much of it also being rather lighthearted. In fact, the film ends up being an extra special treat for film buffs, who will have fun identifying the films that Greg and Earl poke fun at, turning such classics as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Peeping Tom” into “A Sockwork Orange” (done with sock puppets of course) and “Pooping Tom,” where a victim is threatened with a plunger.
At the same time, the dramatic elements are masterfully woven in, dealing with the emotional situation of Rachel’s treatment and how she only appears to be getting worse and worse. The heart of the film ends up being the relationship that forms between Greg and Rachel, a relationship that was, at first, forced upon both of them. Rachel, who doesn’t want pity from anyone, finds that Greg’s weird sense of humor helps brighten up her days, while Greg, an “invisible” kid who tries to fit in by being on minimal good terms with the various cliques at his school, finds a meaningful cause to devote his time to, subsequently changing his life.
Bringing all of this to life are the mesmerizing performances from young actors Thomas Mann (“Project X,” “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”) and Olivia Cooke (“Ouija,” “The Quiet Ones”). Despite having some pretty bad credits in their past, their incredible ability to handle both the heavy and light material is astonishing. For example, one scene will have them joking around and being just plain silly (getting lots of laughs in the process), while another, such as a pivotal encounter later in the film, will have you glued to the screen as the emotions come pouring out. This is no easy thing to do, but they make it seem as though they’ve been doing it for years.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an enormous breath of fresh air, particularly this early in the year where such a thing is desperately needed amongst the cavalcade of big-budget spectacles. Not that those aren’t good in their own way, but you’re not likely to find such intelligent writing or gripping performances in something of that nature (that is, unless it’s being handled by Christopher Nolan). For my money, it’s a film like this that’s far more compelling than all the explosions and car chases you can jam onto a screen, making this little gem one to seek out with determination as it’s given its unfortunate limited distribution. You most certainly won’t be sorry that you did. 4/4 stars.
Now playing in limited release.
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