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Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - If only the cast could lose the clunky plot

An emotional story gets lost amidst too many silly spoofs in director Alfonso Gomex-Rejon's second movie, says Andrew Johnston

Published 04/09/2015

Heavy issues: Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann turn in strong performances
Heavy issues: Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann turn in strong performances

There's a scene near the start of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in which the lead character, nerdy student Greg (Thomas Mann) - aka the 'Me' of the title - fantasises that a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is playing the harp to him while he eats Vietnamese food. And it's done in stop-motion animation. If this self-consciously quirky, hipster-friendly opening doesn't have you running for the nearest Expendables movie, then Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's offbeat comedy-drama could be for you.

It's only the second feature by Gomez-Rejon - a former assistant to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - and it's an odd choice of follow-up to last year's slash-fest The Town That Dreaded Sundown. But the US-Mexican director certainly throws himself into the material, written by Jesse Andrews, based on the author's 2012 debut novel of the same name.

The film follows three friends, Greg, his "co-worker" (ie, classmate and childhood buddy) Earl (RJ Cyler) and the leukaemia-stricken Rachel (Olivia Cooke), as they stumble awkwardly through their last year at high school under the cloud of Rachel's serious illness.

There's a love triangle of sorts, but Gomez-Rejon is less interested in where the kids' relationships are headed than he is in the picture's visual stylings. A major plot element is the two boys' efforts to produce a home movie tribute for their sick pal. Yes, in the kind of conceit that only exists in American indie flicks, teenagers Greg and Earl are budding filmmakers with an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic Hollywood, who have fashioned a library of pun-laden parodies of popular works, such as A Box o' Lips, Wow, Brew Vervet and A Sockwork Orange.

Andrews' screenplay is rather too enamoured with these mini-movies within, which just about pass as a throwaway recurring gag, but not something to hook an entire 105 minutes on.

Often, the emotional essence of the story - a young girl facing up to the realities of dying of cancer - is lost amidst the silly spoofs and clever-clever references.

Still, despite this, the performances of Mann, Cooke and Cyler are warm and naturalistic, and they rise above the clunky plot. If the actors had been appointed as similar characters in a less self-absorbed script, we could have been looking at a real gem. As it is, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is another average entry in the indie cinema canon.

The supporting cast features a selection of US comedy faces, including Molly Shannon as Rachel's sozzled, 'cougar'-like mother, Jon Bernthal as a tattooed history teacher and Nick Offerman as Greg's permanently dressing gown-clad, philosophy-spouting father. They're good for a few chuckles, but again, they're the kind of people who don't tend to exist in real life.

On a more positive note, Gomez-Rejon's direction is steady and assured, and he creates some genuinely memorable imagery.

And by the end, don't be surprised if you're dabbing a tear from your eye.

Three stars

(12A, 105 mins) Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Belfast Telegraph

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