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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Movie Review: 'Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl'

Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl is at once a cinematic beauty and frustrating coming-of-age tripe.

Review by Matt Cummings

In Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl, the high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) enjoys a neutered relationship with every clique: cool from a distance, but none enjoying a true friendship with the other. That's ok with the rejection-phobic Greg, even though his wacky father (Nick Offerman) and best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) know better. To pass the time, Greg and Earl shoot parodies of classic cinema, but even then Greg comnsiders Earl a "business partner." But all that changes when Greg's overly-serious mother (Connie Britton) sends him to comfort the leukemia-stricken high schooler Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's not exactly happy that Greg is violating her personal space. As the two cement a close friendship, with Greg showing off his arthouse-style movies, both must decide whether they can keep their feelings for each other at bay, even as Rachel fights a losing battle with her illness.

What begins as an excessively smart and beautifully shot teenage dramedy descends into YA emotionalism without the heft or follow-through. Our leads are poorly developed, heaving surprises in at film's end that feel shoehorned because the director is obsessed with the theme of mourners learning about someone after they have passed. When that happens in Rachel's bedroom - care of a series of hand-drawn birds that move across wallpapered trees, leading to a bookshelf filled with intricate cut-outs in her books - I suddenly realized that our creative team hadn't imbued her with any prior hobbies or interests until that moment. Rachel is just a girl who's doomed not to make it, her quirky fashion style and intelligence serving as her only gifts until Rejon decides otherwise.

Secondary characters like Offerman and Greg's hipster history teacher (John Bernthal) disappear for long periods and eventually become relegated to fancy plot devices and items of foreshadow. True, this movie isn't titled Me, Father, Teacher, and the Dying Girl but its willingness to treat its top talent like pawns on a chessboard defeats them being in the film in the first place. The same goes for Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), Greg's 'hot girl' colleague, who Writer Jesse Andrews can't decide if she'll actually be Greg's girl, a convenient distraction, or the clay moose that runs over the poor rabbit as depicted each time Madison touches Greg.

And while the story depresses into death after such a strong comedic start, there's strengths here that do equal out the layers of injustice. Rejon and Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (who also shot Stoker) treat their environments with utmost care, tearing a page out of Wes Anderson's book with quirky angles and long wide shots during moments of conversation. It's like a textbook example of Cinematography 101 and one reason why I could stand all the eventual shlock. Girl does try to show us how modern teens cope with big subjects and how these children still dream and innovate in the shadows. I hope Greg and Earl's videos will make it on to the Blu-ray release, because they represent some of the funniest pieces of Girl. They're truly awful, but each serves as a welcomed comedic relief from the emotional weight that begins to overpower our experience.

Earl is also heaped on with the responsibility of bringing a mourning Greg back into the real world, his ghetto-thug-drug upbringing offering no help to that end. He's at once a hilarious caricature, but who in real life would never have been able to rescue his best friend. At one point, it's clear that Greg will go to prom with Madison, not because they're interested in one another, but because Rachel is too sick. Then without warning, Greg arrives at the hospital without her but ready to show Rachel one final movie. Huh? It's such a random scene and one that should have been relegated to Greg going straight for Rachel.

Beautifully shot and well-acted, Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl is also frustratingly meager when the emotional heft arrives. It devolves from quirky film of the year to a melancholy mess. This won't matter to the ladies who will no doubt sniffle through the third act, but that doesn't mean the whole is done well. I think it will find its way into cinema classes for just this reason, proving the banana itself better taste as good as its skin looks.

Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements and has a runtime of 105 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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