Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Directed By: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon

We've had a terrific run of coming-of-age movies in recent years.  Boyhood, The Way, Way Back, The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, Mud, and The Kings of Summer have all risen to the occasion at one point or another in the last several years.  What's so marvelous about this list of quality movies is that they're all so wildly different yet harp on the same central theme of independence.  The main characters in all these movies are seeking independence from their parents, their social nemeses, and the entrapments of their adolescence.  This is the formula for success for just about every coming-of-age film, one that the delightful Me and Earl and the Dying Girl puts to great use.

Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is not your normal high school senior.  Determined to remain off the radar and make no enemies in high school, he plays the odds making himself a casual acquaintance of every group or clique in his school.  He says hello and goodbye to everyone on campus without really getting to know them.  He won't even come dine with them in the cafeteria.  Instead, he spends his lunch hour with his best friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II) and his teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal).  Aside from his social maneuvering, Greg spends his free time making amateur films that are variations on the classics he's watched with his dad (Nick Offerman).  With his partner Earl, he's made sleeper hits such as My Dinner with Andre the Giant, A Sockwork Orange, and my personal favorite 2:48PM Cowboys.

A girl by the name of Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), one of Greg's classmates, receives heartbreaking news from her doctor.  She's been diagnosed with leukemia and is fighting for her life.  Rachel's mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is devastated and shares the tragic news with Greg's mom (Connie Britton).  Mrs. Gaines promptly instructs her son Greg to visit with Rachel.  After being nagged by his mother, he reluctantly agrees to do so.  Soon thereafter, a doomed friendship begins between Greg and the dying girl Rachel.  He introduces Rachel to his love of cinema and even his fascination with pillows.  In fact, Greg begins working with Earl to make a movie for Rachel.

There are very few movies that I consider to be instant classics, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fits the bill.  Touching, heartbreaking, uplifting, hilarious, quirky, offbeat, and original are all words I would use to describe this film.  It's a rare cinematic gift for a moviegoer like me to find himself on an emotional roller coaster that boasts a potent tale, a wonderful homage to the movies of yesteryear, and complicated yet endearing characters.  If Wes Anderson and John Hughes were to have collaborated on a film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would have been the wacky, entertaining byproduct of their efforts.  The doomed friendship of Greg Gaines and Rachel Kushner has quickly established its place in the canon of coming-of-age movies.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon really makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a uniquely charming cinematic experience.  This student of cinema serves up a fun, winning combination of atypical challenges and pressures of unnatural death at a young age and the unbridled silliness characteristic of this age in spite of them.  It's clear in every aspect of the production of his coming-of-age flick.  In one moment, we can be witness to the devastation that leukemia inflicts courtesy of some great make-up work.  In another, we can be lost in an animated world rooted in one of Greg's ramblings about a beautiful moose stomping his innocent chipmunk.  At times, the score can augment the fun tone and, at others, twists the knife in more gut-wrenching moments of the film.  In the midst of all of this, Gomez-Rejon is inundating us with deliciously humorous references to the movies of old.  This is really terrific filmmaking that plays a key role in creating this terrific emotional roller coaster.

With a mix of precocious actors, Gomez-Rejon's cast does some marvelous work in this coming-of-age dramedy.  For his part as Greg Gaines, Thomas Mann delivers a simultaneously insular and charismatic performance.  Anything but a social butterfly, there's a social awkwardness to his portrayal of Greg.  At the same time, his spirits lift when he spends time with Rachel, and he transforms into a totally different character.  For her part as Rachel Kushner, Olivia Cooke delivers a warm, sensitive performance.  Despite the tragedy that's befallen her character and the hell she's enduring, Cooke gives her radiant energy whenever she's around Mann's Greg.  Then, of course, there's Earl who is portrayed by the hilarious Ronald Cyler II.  He consistently tells it like it is and has no cut cards whatsoever.

The veteran cast members don't disappoint either.  We've got Nick Offerman as Greg's cool dad Mr. Gaines.  An old and odd soul getting lost in classics and exotic cuisine, he's far more than the typical disconnected dad we see in most coming-of-age flicks.  For her part as Greg's mom Mrs. Gaines, Connie Britton delivers the annoying but always right mom that Greg needs.  If I had to equate Britton's character to that of any movie or TV mom, it would be none other than Marge Simpson.  We even have Jon Bernthal spewing random quotes of wisdom as Mr. McCarthy.  He's the teacher who's just a dude.  Finally, we have Molly Shannon.  The comedian is a grieving cougar.  Enough said.

When it comes to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I have no complaints.  It's a truly outstanding piece of cinema.  With varied yet balanced filmmaking from Gomez-Rejon and wildly entertaining performances from his cast, we've just been given the next great coming-of-age movie.  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl gets a sober rating.  Respect the research that this group has done in putting this wonderful film together.