Life in Dying

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High school movies are like long division, get one step wrong and it all fails. The story could be interesting, but if the characters aren’t believable, fail. The characters can be believable teenaged high schoolers, but if the movie doesn’t have anything interesting to say, fail. Since there are no special effects to make the movie pop, high school/teenage movies rely on characters and story the most to be engrossing and memorable. Now Hollywood has moved past pushing teeny-bopper musicals in school hallways (thankfully) and have tried letting more serious stories be told by the youth of America. Some come off sappy (The Fault in Our Stars), some are fun and insightful (Dope) and some can even take a piece out of your heart. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is most definitely the latter, and it is worth it.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ 2013 book of the same name (Andrews wrote the screenplay for the movie as well), the Me in the title is self-loathing socially awkward high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann). Greg finds high school socialization stupid, so he casually mingles with each clique in order to appear harmless and avoid making enemies (along with new friends). His only friend is referred to as a co-worker named Earl (RJ Cyler) that makes hilariously amateur parodies of classic films like A Sockwork Orange and A Box of Tulips Now. Earl doesn’t look socializing, but his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) force Greg to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Rachel is droll, witty and dying of leukemia, but she doesn’t want anybody’s pity, least of all Greg. The two start connecting via their own awkward tendencies and Rachel even enjoys Greg and Earl’s movies. But as Rachel gets sicker and the Greg reluctantly agrees to make a movie for her, life starts to breakdown Greg’s carefully constructed strategy of emotional seclusion and make him question what he’s missing out on.

If you’re starving for Wes Anderson’s next feature, you’re in luck because Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the best movie Anderson never made. With Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Glee, American Horror Story) behind the camera, he shoots the movie in Pittsburgh with a faded tone and something in the form of an art film. His camera follows his actors in motion (sometimes shaking, sometimes steady), even as the collapse to a non-human state to avoid social awkwardness. Being based in high school makes Me and Earl have more in common with Bottle Rocket than The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Gomez-Rejon has the same passion for film that Anderson has and it’s all on-screen. The movies Greg and Earl make and the stop-motion animation used as an allegory for Greg’s relationship with a cute co-ed (Katherine C. Hughes) show the same unique style of storytelling Anderson brings.

He also knows to respect Jesse Andrews’ characters. Thomas Mann is very endearing by keeping the introverted Greg from becoming an unlikeable jerk. He’s not ignoring people because he hates people, he just understands that being made fun of in high school for what you’re passionate about isn’t worth it. His awkwardness isn’t for comedy (though it is funny), just a part of his personality. His fascination with foreign film is probably because he feels like a foreigner in his own life. He’s got help though, like RJ Cyler’s deadpan Earl that always manages to knock sense into Greg once in a while. British actress Olivia Cooke is more than endearing, sort of a sunnier Aubrey Plaza. She shows a lot of soul when the cancer gets worse and reminds Greg that being alone is stupid, a valuable lesson for introverts everywhere. Me and Earl also has great little pieces of supporting comedy from Offerman, Jon Bernthal as Greg’s intense teacher and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s touchy-feely mom.

What Me and Earl succeeds in is making a story used for sappy Lifetime movies seem fresh and surprisingly funny. Greg (as narrator) points out very early on that this is not a “touching love story” where he and Rachel fall in love, even pointing out he’s not sure how tell the story. That’s actually one of the charms of the movie; he doesn’t tell it like a story of any kind, but as a memory or a life lesson. The story isn’t for everyone so it may turn people off, but the way it’s told is something so alive and funny that it may even turn the harshest of critics. And for those like Greg or Rachel, someone who never fit into the mold and wanted to make their own, congrats on finally having a movie for you.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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