The “coming of age” genre is a difficult one to master in mainstream cinema, and we see less and less of them on the silver screen these days. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the generation that is currently maturing into adulthood doesn’t fall into any one status quo of what becoming an adult means. The definition of “the American ream” is watered down with a vast array of opportunities and lifestyles. Big studios are not interested in risking their budgets on a generation that is too divided to be easily represented by any one storyline.
And so the beauty of the independent film shines once again! Smaller films can have a lot of heart, because usually, the motivation behind making an independent film, is the need to express a beautiful story, and Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl, by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon delivers.
Coming-of-age dramedies can be cliché as all get out, but Gomez-Rejon crafts a beautifully cutting and engaging film using a sharp and realistic understanding of true self-discovery. The key lies in the main character, Greg, played in a delicately understated fashion by Thomas Mann. Greg is an intelligent and wildly creative teenage boy, reveling in the absurdity of life and using a dry wit to hide the fear that grows HUGE in his heart. He is scared of friendship, of success, of failure, and above all things, he’s scared of his own future. He is a product of very emotionally intelligent and quirky parents, played endearingly by Nick Offerman and Connie Britton. Using fabulous motherly wisdom, Greg’s mom insists that her son befriend Rachel(the Dying Girl) after breaking the news to him that she has been diagnosed with cancer. Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, is nobody special to Greg, but his mother won’t take no for an answer, and sets her son on a difficult and life-changing path.
While there have been hundreds of movies that grapple with the death of a loved one, this one offers a refreshing journey and perspective. What really made this movie stand out, was how Gomez-Rejon uses humor as a story-telling tool to build the audience’s intimacy with the main characters. The focus stays on Greg as he processes an unwelcomed new friendship and all the subsequent life lessons that smack him in the face. Gomez-Rejon could have easily injected much more humor, particularly using the charismatic Nick Offerman, but he pulls back, letting Offerman’s oneliners fade into the background, adding layers of discovery for future viewings. That’s not to say the movie isn’t funny, because it’s actually hilarious! But the humor is used wisely, not flippantly, and it never feels like they set up a gag.
The tone and pacing is masterfully crafted for maximum emotional impact and heralds a very unique style of character development. The movie starts out with a light, quirky, and fast-paced comedic narrative, then evolves into a very intimate, haunting, and stark realism as Greg begins to absorb the reality of Rachel’s life, and of the choices he now must face in his own. I don’t want to say much more about story development, because it truly deserves to be experienced, so I’ll move on to performances.
My favorite character, by far, was Earl, played in droll form by RJ Cyler. Earl is Greg’s only true friend and although he comes from a very different demographic background, he has a profound love and understanding for the misanthropic Greg. Earl’s scenes are amazing because they range from hilarious bromantic dialogue, to tear-jerking moments of raw truth and sentiment. You simply LOVE Earl and the movie lights up to an even brighter wattage when he is in the scene. He doesn’t become a dominant character until about one third of the way in, and I think this is more of the director’s attempt to continuously unfold Greg’s story, as Earl tends to be a scene stealer.
Molly Shannon deserves a huge shout out, as Rachel’s mother, struggling with the difficulties of watching her only child die of cancer. She manages to be funny and heart-breaking at the same time. I would have loved to see more of her, and honestly, her work in this film is award worthy, as well as RJ Cyler’s, I would add. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal surprises and delights as the high school science teacher, who for good reason, is favored above all other teachers by Earl and Greg. Each and every actor offers a new facet and depth to this film through the characters they play. Not one performance felt flat, and if ever one was to outshine the story, Gomez-Rejon would purposefully move them off screen, or gently redirect the audience, without ever breaking the flow. The more I think of it, it’s this smoothness of transitions that allows so many outstanding performances and unique characters to exist in the story without it becoming messy or overwhelming.
You might wonder why I’m not touching much on Rachel, the Dying Girl. Well, that’s because it would be robbing you of a very important theme and lesson in the movie. You need to watch it yourself to learn about Rachel. So, do it, go watch this beautiful movie.
I’d like to add one more thing to my review before I sign off. Despite the fact that this is a very emotional film, it is very man friendly and speaks in a masculine voice. Dudes shouldn’t have any problem relating to and really enjoying this movie. It’s another reason that it doesn’t fall into the typical “my best friend is dying” movie. A majority of these movies target a female audience, but this one casts a wide net and is easily relatable to both genders and many generations, thanks mostly to the classic film references it features.
Delightful and poignant, I found myself hypnotized by this film! It’s definitely a tear-jerker so be prepared, but it is a whole heartedly fabulous ride! Thank you, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, for this fantastic movie. I’m looking forward to more of your work!
Thanks for reading,
Diva Del Mar