Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Those awkward, challenging and meaningful days of high school filled with dreams, fears and resolutions come to life in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a lovely film about learning to reach beyond ourselves to support the people we treasure.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ novel, with a title that suggests its story, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl introduces Greg, an awkward but well-intentioned high school student who honors his mother’s request to offer friendship to Rachel, a classmate diagnosed with lukemia.

At first, their relationship is awkward, filled with stalled conversations and missed commitments, until Greg begins to reveals his love for creating movie tributes to his favorite films. As Rachel slowly begins to trust this unlikely friend, the two surprisingly discover that, when people remove the barriers, they start to learn what they can mean to each other.

As simple as this narrative may sound, Me and Earl offers more than a story about a dying girl and her friends. It becomes, in fact, a thoughtful study of how people can find it difficult to reveal themselves, how slowly trust can begin, and how meaningful new friendships can be. Even when someone’s future is uncertain, authentic human connections can make a difference to each. And the people we learn to treasure can become lifelines we cherish.

All of this could have been “movie-of-the-week” sudsy in less caring hands. But Me and Earl works on screen because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Andrews, adapting his novel, dare to tell more than a story about a dying girl. While Rachel’s disease may frame her relationships, it doesn’t limit the film’s focus as the moviemakers freely explore how Greg refuses to admit caring for “coworker” Earl, how the movies they create help them deal with tension in their lives, and how Rachel’s mother may have her own reasons for enjoying Greg’s visits. By enhancing the narrative to include these additional layers, the director and writer make the central story ring true without letting its sentiment smother the rhythm.

Gomez-Rejon also enhances the film’s authenticity by shooting in a variety of methods, including the use of animation to highlight key points and innovative camera angles to frame the relationships. In one sequence, as Greg and Rachel try to figure out their friendship, the director simply lets his camera sit as we watch the two try to work through the moment, without cuts or camera movement to distract, just Greg at one corner and Rachel at another.

The director’s work with actors rings true, as well, as Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke shine as the leads and Connie Britton and Molly Shannon, especially, score as the mothers. Gomez-Rejon lets the actors breathe in these characters without allowing the serious tones to interrupt the many moments of natural humor.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl hits the right notes because its director trusts the material, and uses his imagination, and the screenwriter steps away from his book to write a movie. The result is a magical look at how people grow. And grow up.

Film Nutritional Value

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Content: High. With its focus on characters, and the friendships that can provide strength, the film offers a lot to think about.

Entertainment: High. Despite the serious subject matter, the film doesn’t take itself or his characters too seriously as it lets the natural rhythm and humor breathe.

Message: High. Parents will quickly identify with the tragedy of a child facing difficult challenges; teenagers may see themselves in these characters who want to experience life in any dosage.

Relevance: High. We should welcome any chance to reflect on how lucky we are when we can end each day with the security that people we love bring to our lives.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. There’s a lot to talk about after spending time with these characters and, hours later, you will still find yourself smiling about an experience you share.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is rated PG-13 for “sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements”. The film runs 102 minutes.

5 Popcorn Buckets

Let’s Talk Movies: Celebrate America

This weekend’s anniversary of our nation’s birth offers a marvelous opportunity to revisit movies that celebrate the spirit of America.

On the Broadway stage, the musical 1776, with its tongue-in-cheek approach to history, offered an easy way to absorb the fundamentals of how our nation began. That composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards had been a history teacher gave the show some factual credibility; that its book was written by Oscar winner Peter Stone offered show business sizzle. When Jack L. Warner produced the film version in 1972, he left the show virtually intact, much as did with the movie of My Fair Lady a few years before. Years later, 1776 remains an endearing look at what it took to make democracy happen among people who couldn’t get along with musical numbers that offer insight into the hopes and dreams that fueled a new nation. Every major moment of this historical effort comes to life, from General Washington reports from the front to the debates that detail issues of the day. As with any musical, the situations and characters may exaggerate a bit, but the fundamentals ring true. Starting America, like any other beginning, involved egos and agendas, likes and dislikes. And, from all the disagreement and discussions, a nation was born.

The challenges of freedom – so essential to the start of our country – continue to reach into day-to-day realities across our nation. Last year’s Selma recreates the South before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While historians may quibble about how the film treats some details, and how it portrays the intentions of President Lyndon Johnson, the issues the film raises are as relevant today as 50 years ago. Director Ava DuVernay, working from a script by Paul Webb, gets to the core of the resistance to this fundamental right that freedom promises, from the ambitions and passions of Martin Luther King, to the actions of those who oppose letting all American citzens vote. By making the conflicts feel so present, DuVernay reminds us that some fights never claim victory, they only measure progress. If you missed Selma in the theaters, take the time to find it online or on demand. This important drama, as it meticulously recreates a different moment in time, gives us a lot to think about how voting continues to challenge too many people.

When our nation’s fathers came up with the idea for America, they avoided the temptation to create a monarchy. Over the years, however, many people have come to expect our leaders to be bigger than life in what they accomplish and how they behave, with little patience when a larger-than-life politician may act in an inappropriate way. In Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a young newspaperman believes he can make a difference when he’s appointed to a seat in the US Senate. He believes in the ideals that every voice in our nation should be heard. So he is brutally surprised, and bitterly disappointed, when he realizes the government he believes in doesn’t always behave in a way that makes people proud. Capra offers the basics of American government – in a more entertaining way than many a history class – as he inspires people to get involved. And never mind that the film was made in 1939; its issues, personalities and agendas are as current as what we hear today. What this young Senator experiences could be lifted from current blogs and headlines. In our country, we become so jaded by scandal that we overlook many things; and, when we discover someone to topple, we can’t wait to get started.

On a lighter side, the movie version of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man celebrates America with the enthusiasm of the best July 4th event. On the Broadway stage, the show offered just enough story to keep our interest, introduce the musical numbers and create colorful characters. With its magical transfer to the screen, when the show begins to sing, we all stand and cheer. Now, this movie is a musical. That means that every few minutes, after a short section of snappy dialogue, someone bursts into song or dance. What makes The Music Man a lot of fun is how Meredith Willson captures the spirit of the American experience in his patriotic tunes and rhythms. The film saves us from serious issues to examine or conflicts to resolve. Instead it’s all about the good feelings that living in America can bring. In Willson’s musical, when summer comes, the flags begin the fly, the parades start to assemble, and a positive spirit reaches every neighborhood and touches every soul. You’ll tap your toes in no time.

Enjoy the holiday weekend. And the movies that celebrate America.