Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

Snowmen


Snowmen

Can you guess which kid farted?

(2010) Family Drama (MPower) Bobby Coleman, Josh Flitter, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christian Martyn, Doug E. Doug, Demi Petersen, Beverley Mitchell, Jennifer Klekas, Carolina Andrus. Directed by Robert Kirbyson

There are those who believe that the greatest tragedy in life is a life unrealized. We all yearn to make a mark, to accomplish something that will live on long after we’re gone. However, it is admittedly rare for a ten-year-old to think about such things.

Then again, there aren’t many ten-year-olds like Billy Kirkfield (Coleman). Billy loves the snow; loves to build snow forts, snow men and throw snowballs at his friends, and in Silver Lake, Colorado, there is plenty of snow to go around. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t have a lot of friends. Many of them distanced themselves from him when Billy got cancer. His hair still hasn’t grown back from the chemotherapy, so he wears a wool cap wherever he goes.

When Howard Garvey (Thompson) moves in next door from Jamaica, it turns out to be quite a culture shock for the both of them but they instantly bond over – what else – snowballs. Howard becomes the third member of the outsiders at school, the severely put-upon and timid Lucas (Martyn) being the third. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that Lucas’ last name is Lamb. The three bond when they discover the body of an 87 year old man in the snowdrift they’re building their snow fort in.

But this is no Stand By Me. The appearance of the dead guy forces Billy to confront his own pending mortality. It appears the cancer has reappeared – nobody is telling him straight out, but his parents have been more affectionate than usual and the hospital is calling every day. Billy knows he doesn’t have long, and he wants to leave a lasting mark before he goes. After some thought and a few less-than-successful attempts at doing something cool, Billy hits upon the idea of setting a world record for most snowmen built in 24 hours.

There are plenty of issues standing in his way, including a vicious bully (Flitter), a less than enthusiastic principal (Mitchell) and his somewhat distant Dad (Liotta), who is trying to pay off the medical bills, run his used car dealership and find some time for his son. Billy is playing his “dying kid” card like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, but he doesn’t know how long he has – and the odds are steep against him.

This could easily have been one of those made for Nickelodeon movies in which the kids are smarter than the adults and are plucky and resourceful without breaking a sweat. These kids are far from perfect; their greatest asset is their willingness to take their dream as far as it can take them.

Coleman reminded me a little bit of Sean Astin in The Goonies – not so much facially, but in his enthusiasm and leadership. Not that the two movies are similar – only that the two leads have a lot of similar characteristics, especially in terms of their heart and drive. Coleman also does a good job conveying the anguish he feels when his hat is torn off of him by Jason, exposing his bald head for all to see.

Liotta plays a bit of a cartoon used car salesman with outrageous commercials and a penchant for endless self-promotion, but at the end of the day he’s a good dad, wracked with guilt over what his son is forced to go through. It’s a marvelously affecting performance and reminds us that Liotta can be as good an actor as anyone in the business.

Also of note is a cameo by Christopher Lloyd as the caretaker of the cemetery where the old man whose body the boys found is buried. While the part essentially exists to get the filmmaker’s life lesson across, Lloyd handles it with dignity and surprising restraint. While we all know him for the Reverend Jim on TV and Doc Brown in the movies, he doesn’t necessarily have to overplay to be memorable.

I liked that the movie wasn’t so much a formula family movie, although there were some moments that left me groaning inside (how did Howard, who could barely stand on his skates and on the way across the pond “only” fell tweve times, suddenly turn into a speed skater near the end of the movie for example). However, it’s kind of rare for a family film these days to be thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult issues. Too many films in this genre dumb themselves down and go for really lowbrow laughs and to my mind, refuse to respect the intelligence of their audience. Kids may be inexperienced and lack sophistication but that doesn’t make them morons and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t treat them that way. Here is a family movie worth seeing that wasn’t made by Pixar – now there’s a mark worth leaving behind.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming without being sickly sweet, with some fine performances from the young actors.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a couple of moments that nearly jump the shark.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children and there is a scene near the end that might be too intense for younger kids but perfectly fine for kids ten and up – and a good jumping-off point for a dialogue about death for kids who may have experienced the loss of a loved one or a friend.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film, which was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was based on Kirbyson’s experiences growing up in Winnipeg.

HOME OR THEATER: If you can see it in a theater, by all means do – however, chances are you’ll have to wait for a home video release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kinyarwanda