***1/2 out of ****
Up-and-coming director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s new film, Meand Earl and the Dying Girl made a great impression at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature. It has also been playing in theaters for a while now. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time.
To describe its plot might be a turnoff for some or have misleading allure for others. It’s about a high school senior (Thomas Mann) whose goal it is to survive his senior year by keeping a good reputation with all varieties of the teenagers who surround him while avoiding any emotional attachments. One day, he is pressured by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend a girl (Olivia Cooke) from his school who has just been diagnosed with Leukemia. With great resistance, the two eventually click.
That’s what the movie is about. However, Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, based on his novel of the same, takes us on a fist-person narrative passage that embraces the main character’s emotional detachment, subverting our expectations for the typical bittersweet drama we might expect. It’s a caring story, but an emotionally honest one about friendship, even if the film’s characters and environment seem exaggerated for quirky effects. “Quirky” can be a red-flag for myself and other film-snobs, but I think it works here.
It may be a shameless ploy with critics that the main character and his so-called “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) are amateur filmmakers, parodying pieces of classic international cinema that would normally be found in the Criterion Collection. It’s not a realistic depiction of a high school movie fan’s ambitions, but the imposition by the writer and director is clearly about their love of movies. I can’t fault them there.
The mentors and parental figures in the supporting cast also include Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, and Molly Shannon as eccentric people in the lives of these unusual kids.
The Pittsburg setting provides a different environment than your average movie with its old buildings, bridges and urban decay surrounded by heavy foliage. Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (the original Oldboy) also lends his lighting and compositional skills to the characters and offbeat locations, while Nico Muhly and Brian Eno contribute music. This movie is a tad preoccupied with style in its set decoration and stop-motion segues, but it’s unique, it had my attention, and it got me emotional.