Friday, September 25, 2015

Coming Soon to DVD: How Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl Reminds Us We're Universally Weird - and It's OK

Earl dubiously enjoy's Greg's Dad's cuisine du jour - pig's feet.
Let's face it - much of my experience of being in high school was thinking that everyone was weird, including myself, and it turns out that was largely true. An indie feature that won hearts at The Sundance Film Festival called Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, coming to Blu Ray and DVD on October 6, conveys this concept beautifully.

This movie, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews,  is about several things - filmmaking, life and death, the excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood, and the realization that we all must come to: even adults don't have all the answers. It is also about uncovering uncomfortable truths rarely spoken about but are there - the fact that young people do get diagnosed with devastating diseases, that yes, teenage boys and girls do masturbate, and yes, sometimes the occasional pot cookie does get eaten prior to college. But rather than jar us with these truths by exposing them in harsh light, they are drawn out in the cozy confines of everyday life, amongst talks about health class and where to sit at lunch, while clutching pillows in quaint yellow childhood bedrooms. 
The story begins focusing on Greg (Thomas Mann), an awkward high school senior who spends much of his time under the radar of the various social classes, eating lunch in his badass history teacher's office, and being terrified every time the girl of his dreams touches him on the shoulder. Most of the film is told from Greg's perspective, but relative newcomer director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon regularly brings the audience up for air from our hero's existential musings to get perspective from other characters, including Earl, whom Greg calls his "co-worker" since the believes he's not cool enough to have actual friends. They make hilarious parodies of movies together, with titles such as Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange, with menacing looking sock puppets in top hats and black felt long eyelashes around their stuck-on googly eyes. You can even watch tiny clips of these mini-movies here - David Lynch fans will appreciate their take on the classic mind-bender, Blue Velvet.
One of Greg and Earl's films within the film. Cracked me up.

Greg is pulled abruptly out of his self-absorption malaise when he finds out from his mother that his classmate Rachel, played by the lovely Olivia Cooke,  has been diagnosed with leukemia. I adore it when films can bring realistic reactions to the big screen, and Greg's is your typical teenage mantra - well, that really sucks, but what am I supposed to do about it? In typical mom fashion, she encourages Greg to go over to her house anyway for support, which Greg is not jazzed about doing, but eventually does.

Much of the film is slow and poignant, buoyed along by the creative original music by Brian Eno that incorporates the mournful drones of  the harmonium spiced up with sparkles of techno beats.The cinematography incorporates everything from long, unbroken shots to stop-motion animation (including a hilarious recurring montage of a moose accidentally stepping on a small chipmunk over and over, a mental metaphor for Greg's crush inadvertently stepping on his heart with her casual interest in him). The camerawork is a joy to behold, with many of the shots done in one long take, casually panning back and forth between the characters. There are off-center shots with the character in corners, at the end of hallways, allowing us to get a sense of their broader environment. One particularly epic scene is after Rachel has started chemo treatment, and she and Greg get into their first major argument. It is all done in ONE shot. This allows the emotion of the moment to build in our hearts and minds and is a testament to the acting chops of both Mann and Cooke. That scene is worth the price of admission alone.

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, & RJ Cyler as the featured trio.
Everyone in this film is undeniably weird. We see a greying teacher wearing aviator sunglasses during class. Greg's Dad is a college professor that spends a lot of his time cuddling the cat and cooking weird Asian food (sounds a lot like my fiance). Molly Shannon, taking on her mantle of middle age with beauty and grace, plays the role of Rachel's mom with a kind of aching honesty - one scene in which she hugs and kisses Greg on the cheek has just a pinch of benign but undeniable sexual tension on Shannon's side - as a hardworking single mom of a dying girl with a love for a glass or three of white wine, she gets her kicks where she can. In fact, the most normal character of all is Rachel, who handles the crushing weight of her diagnosis with as much wide-eyed optimism as she can muster for as long as she physically can.

Unlike many films that walk the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, there's no pretension. It's a simple story with a complex message, and a heartfelt look into today's contemporary teen, and all that goes into the journey from being a boy to becoming a man.

 Toby sez: Come for the humor, stay for the humanity. Definitely one of the best films of the year in terms of plot, acting, and cinematography. Oh, and having a cat in it was definitely a plus in my book.