“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a writer’s movie. And thank heaven for that.
This movie about outrageously film-smart teenage boys and a girl with leukemia is bursting with self-referential teen wit and the kind of verbal showing off of which self-respecting film schools might sternly disapprove.
But it’s so much a writer’s movie that the director, in only his second feature film, is following in the spirit of Jesse Andrews’ script by doing a lot of showing off unintentionally in the writer’s same general self-congratulatory, smart-aleck style.
Academic disapproval of all this would just be one of the more traditional ways American Puritanism shows off its contempt for the possibility that, as H.L. Mencken so memorably put it, someone somewhere may be happy.
Happily, it’s a very witty movie and a very moving one. And it’s in a solid new recent tradition of teen movie. As with “Juno,” this is a movie about outrageously smart teens who learn the yawning and painful difference between wisdom and just knowing a lot of stuff.
The movie is from a Young Adult novel by Jesse Andrews who also wrote the screenplay. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rezon is so much in Andrews’ corner that some of the scenes in the teen protagonist’s house were actually filmed in the house in which Andrews grew up.
A desire to connect verbal and cinematic showing off is nothing if not natural, no matter what film theory prefers.
Before directing, Gomez-Rezon was a personal assistant and a second unit director for both Martin Scorsese and Nora Ephron. While you’re there getting it, you can throw in personal assistant for Robert De Niro and Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu.
Here is one young director who was obviously determined to learn from some of the best.
And he did – did he ever.
Thomas Mann is 24 years old, but he plays Greg, a teenage boy who has learned the fine art of being friendly to everyone and friends with no one. This is Going Along to Get Along at its most expert and enlightened.
He believes in it so much that Greg refers to his actual friend Earl – played by R J Cyler – as his co-worker and colleague. That’s because they are co-workers. Because both Greg and Earl are film nuts, they watch bushels of high-dome foreign and independent and classic movies together and then make their own ridiculous video parodies of them.
Greg and Earl have known each other since kindergarten. Their lives are different. Greg’s mom and dad – played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman – are unexceptionally white academic middle class. Earl is a black working class realist given to winnowing down Greg’s self-indulgent blabber to its sensual and material essences.
But nowhere in America are you likely to find teenagers who want to see movies like Louie Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” without, in some way, bonding with each other.
So Greg and Earl make their own video versions of them starring them and some friends. They give them titles like “Pooping Tom” and “Death in Tennis” and “Sockwork Orange” (an epic about socks and orange juice.) These kids are outrageously bright and irreverent and funny.
But early on, Greg’s mom has forced her son to make friends with poor housebound Rachel, whose abandoned mother has just learned that her beloved only daughter has leukemia.
And you can guess the rest.
Greg and Rachel become reluctant friends, at first. And then, even worse, they become friends about as loving as it is possible for teenage friends can be when one of you is going through chemotherapy and is wearing hats to cover up her bald scalp.
Greg is a great kid. He instinctively knows that there is no wit more charming for the sick than putting a twist on brutal honesty. Who else could console her by telling her that “high school is the mouth of a great demon.”
Greg and Rachel are wonderful together, which makes the film both delightful and heartbreaking.
Greg’s constant barrage of knowing gags stays just this side of obnoxious in Andrews’ script (others might disagree and think it does go over the line) and the film, like “Juno” winds up an extremely winning movie about teens who are having very adult lives thrust upon them against their will.
The performers aren’t really teens. Mann is 23 and Olivia Cooke, who is both soulful and radiant as Rachel, is 22. Assume the film was made over a year or two ago.
The film needed these little age differences between actors’ and characters’ ages to be as good as it is. This is a movie that hasn’t lost any wisdom in knowledge. What it knows, it knows everywhere, including in its big heart.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rezon
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual and drug content, language and themes.
The Lowdown: Acclaimed comedy of movie-loving teens who become friends with a teen girl who has leukemia.