Cute stop-motion interludes? Check. A nerdy yet sensitive protagonist with a precocious talent for something creative? Check. A quirky best friend, eccentric parent and a dreamy love interest? Check, check and check again.
The opening scenes of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, charming though they are, so immediately recall the likes of Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Noah Baumbach and Richard Ayoade that it almost feels like a pastiche of your average gently comic indie film. Traces of Rushmore, Igby Goes Down, Son Of Rambow, Adventureland, Submarine and numerous other coming-of-age sagas can all be found in director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s gently comic drama.
Gradually, however, the Me And Earl moves beyond the familiar, and comes back with something far more heartfelt and poignant.
For 17-year-old Greg (Thomas Mann), high school is a war zone that requires charm and cunning to navigate. Remaining on superficially friendly terms with the various cliques that trudge slumped-shouldered through the school’s corridors or crowd into its canteens, Gregg has unwittingly turned himself into something of a social blank. By failing to get on the wrong side of the various goths, drama geeks and metalheads, he’s also managed to drift right to senior year without making any close friends.
Greg’s only real confidante is Earl, a “colleague” with whom he’s made about 40 low-budget films, each one affectionately riffing on the classics of cinema: they have juvenile titles like Pooping Tom, Eyes Wide Butt, Breathe Less, and so on. Greg’s in the middle of making his latest film, a remake of Aguirre, Wrath Of God, when his mother emotionally coerces him into befriending Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the daughter of a family friend.
Rachel is battling cancer, an affliction Greg is ill-equipped to deal with, so instead he strikes up a conversation about cushions. What begins as a strained friendship of convenience soon develops into something more genuine.
Jesse Andrews wrote the novel of the same name, and his adaptation for the screen is quite ingenious, in that its progression reflects that of its central character. The opening half an hour is a self-consciously zany amalgam of home-spun stop-motion and extreme camera angles, reflecting Greg’s superficial and fidgety nature. It’s when Greg meets Rachel that the film settles down, quietly observing its characters with long unbroken takes and a quietly observant lens.
It’s here that Mann and Cooke’s leading turns come to the fore – and their performances are excellent. Mann has a tough job for a young actor, since he’s in almost every shot; Cooke, meanwhile, has the equally tricky task of conveying a strong yet desperately ill young woman without the benefit of a great deal of dialogue. Both actors prove to be more than up to the task.
Around them, the supporting cast put in similarly sterling work. Jon Bernthal’s a leftfield choice as Earl and Greg’s hip history teacher, whose tattoos and aggressive demeanour mask a quietly sensitive nature. Nick Offerman’s on familiar territory as Greg’s eccentric father, a kind of academic hippy philosophical savant who introduces Greg to world cinema and exotic food. True to form, Offerman steps in now and again to utter murmur something scene stealing (“Pig’s foot?”, he offers), but he’s a deceptively well-drawn character: there’s a great incidental gag that the dad makes Greg exotic lunches and writes little jokes about their country of origin on the brown paper bags.
Then again, it’s the incidental touches that make Me And Earl something more than blandly entertaining festival fare. Take RJ Cyler, who plays Earl, for example. Theoretically, he should have the thankless role as Greg’s goofy sidekick, the one who provides a touch of comic relief, some home truths but doesn’t get the girl. But he’s written with real depth and humour; his tendency to speak his mind, irrespective of the circumstances, isn’t a contrived quirk but an intrinsic part of his character. It’s immediately believable that Greg and Earl, two young kids from entirely different backgrounds (the former modestly middle-class and bohemian, the latter from a poorer part of town) should be such firm friends.
Me And Earl also proves to be a film about films. About half-way through, it dawns that the movies Greg and Earl make aren’t just a dramatic grace-note. Greg dismisses his films as trash, but Rachel sees one and falls quietly in love with it; she laughs when a papier mâché puppet of Dean Stockwell sings In Dreams during the remake of Blue Velvet, as do we.
Later, Greg and Earl cease to copy other movies they love and try to make something new and personal. It’s a clever echo of the process everyone has to go through when they pursue something creative: they copy and copy until finally they find their own voice.
Ingeniously, Me And Earl plots the same course, beginning in a place we feel we’ve seen before, but then moving into new, powerful and unforgettable territory.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is out in UK cinemas on the 4th September.
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