Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Produced by Jeremy Dawson, Dan Fogelman and Steven M. Rales
Screenplay by Jesse Andrews, based on his book
Music by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly
Cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung
Edited by David Trachtenberg

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Amid the clutter, muck, grime and slime of the over-done, over-produced, moronic early part of the 2015 summer movie season, a sleeper quality film, a true original, inventive and unique absolute gem of a movie, has arrived in theaters and, as of the first part of June, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” can proudly stand tall as one of the best mainstream films released so far this year. “Me and Earl…” is that rare film that shines from start to finish, on every filmic level, is instantly pleasing and memorable, and succeeds smartly and cleverly with a probing, intelligent array of insightful themes, messages, morals and lessons. The unique production, direction, acting and writing elevate the film to another level that clearly shows just what a real, quality original film should indeed be.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the film to see, so far, for the 2015 summer movie season—-and for 2015. Regarding the summer movie season, that’s not jumping the gun as of June 12, which is the film’s release date, because in some ways, the Hollywood summer movie season actually now starts in early May, which is, of course, already a month ago. Anyways, “Me…” thankfully and quickly washes away the bad, insulting and lingering bad tastes left behind by the sorely disappointing, embarrassing and moronic “Furious 7,” “San Andreas” and “Spy” fiascoes and other early summer season film follies.

The first important point to note about “Me…” is that the filmmakers paid no strict attention to conventions, studio constraints, formulas, standards, guidelines, traditions, trends, generally accepted structures or other usual studio conference room or studio suit blueprints. The production, direction, writing and acting all fall into their own, original world, time, space and atmosphere, allowing the film to inhabit a world all its own, unlike other films and other films’ overall filmic structures.

Other filmmaking aspects in “Me” are approached originally, also, including music, cinematography, editing, pacing, lighting and story, character and plot development. Shortly into the film, the viewer already knows they watching something original, and that’s a good thing. The viewer can sit back early with “Me” and enjoy the crescendo of rising expectations about just how this film will surprise, and create wonder, awe and praise from its unique approach. And how often does that really occur in the movie theater? Not often, really, as even some of the better, quality films still have that underlying predictability and familiar nature, which can be adequate and can work, in the right setting. But “Me” proudly and boldly takes expectations, conventions and structures and turns them all upside down.

That doesn’t mean that the film is difficult, overly quirky, hard to understand or not entertaining—because “Me” is not difficult, it’s not overly quirky, it’s easy to understand, but it’s still incredibly smart and insightful, and, perhaps most importantly for a highly original film, “Me” is highly entertaining—funny, moving, emotional, probing, deep and highly watchable. “Me” is the type of quirky, independent-style film that can indeed—and should indeed—appeal to mass audiences. The film actually deserves to be accepted, embraced and seen by mass audiences—and, although the main characters are teenagers, any person, of any age or type, can enjoy and appreciate the intricacies, details, storytelling and true emotions of this film.

A good reference point is that “Me” recalls the films of Wes Anderson and John Hughes (the early teen-angst-comedy John Hughes films), and that can only be a compliment. “Me” also has that quirky spark, humor and inventiveness shown in other similar independent-minded film comedies from recent years, such as Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998); Jared and Jerusha Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004); Mike Judge’s “Office Space” (1999); Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012); Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” (2009); and, in some ways, some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies. All of these films are unique, quirky and original, and they all inhabit their own little worlds.

“Me” tells the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), a middle-class Pittsburgh loner teen trying his very best to just survive and get through the dark abyss that is the teen years. He and his best friend, Earl (Ronald Cyler II), another loner type but with just a bit more workable social skills who lives in a bit of a run-down, lower-income part of town, rely on each other, help each other out—and, hilariously, make their own quirky, inventive parody short films, all based on real-life feature-length films. Using anything they can find around the house, and any location they can use, Greg and Earl wander the Pittsburgh landscape, making their short films that no one sees except themselves and maybe a few others. Meanwhile, they eat lunch at school with their off-kilter, spiritual and modern-day hippie-ish teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), deftly avoiding the social minefield that is the high school lunchtime cafeteria. They barely interact with others, they have few friends, and they just want to get through the day without anyone getting in their way—much like most people in high school, in many ways. At home, they deal with parents who, as many parents are to so many teens, distant, unable to understand anything, out-of-touch and people who occupy some other plane of existence in a teen’s world.

The interesting thing, though, about Greg and Earl is that, based on their intellect, humor, insight and even their appearances, they don’t fit the usual outsider outcast modes. They’re actually bright, funny and insightful guys and even attractive in their own ways. That’s just one of many ways that “Me” turns so many conventions upside down: Instead of giving Greg and Earl the usual stereotyped, conventional traits usually associated with outsiders in so many films, such as an odd appearance, or odd clothes or weird mannerisms or interests, director Alfonso Gomez-Rajon and writer Jesse Andrews, who adapted the screenplay from his own 2012 book of the same name, simply present Greg and Earl as, actually, very normal, everyday, average guys. There really isn’t anything odd or weird about them, and that’s an interesting aspect of not just the film, but real life: In some ways, we’re all outsiders, and everyone is an outsider. And it’s how people deal with that, how people cope with life, which makes life interesting. That battle and struggle—to cope with life, and, especially in “Me,” to cope with life as a teenager—is one of the many themes explored in the film.

One day, somewhat out of the blue, Greg’s mom (Connie Britton, in a nice, understated role as, again, a pretty normal person, and a normal mom) asks Greg if he could do her and some others a favor and please visit his classmate Rachel Kushner, a pretty, smart and creative girl who just happens to be battling leukemia. Greg doesn’t really know Rachel, doesn’t really hang out with her, and doesn’t really understand why his mom wants him to visit Rachel. Greg’s mom, Mrs. Gaines, sees the act of having Greg visit Rachel as a means to get Greg out of his shell, as a means of doing something nice for a classmate going through a rough time, as a means of helping Rachel, and, possibly, as a means of pushing Greg to make another friend. Greg reluctantly visits Rachel and, eventually, subsequently, he and she bond and become friends.

Now that plot development may, at first, appear clichéd and unoriginal, but, again, it’s how Andrews and Gomez-Rajon approach the prickly nature of relationships in general and, more specifically, the even more prickly relationships of teens as just friends, that makes the slow-burn friendship of Greg and Rachel advance and come to life in a clever manner. And the difficult steps that each takes in their friendship is explored with an even mix of sweet and sour, happy and sad, funny and emotional, difficult and easy, quirky and normal—just like any relationship, really. But the writing is so infused with wit, charm, cleverness and sharpness; it’s never clichéd or familiar.

And Gomez-Rajon takes a wholly original approach to filming this friendship, avoiding the usual incidents that occur in teen, or other, relationships. This is not a normal friendship, and everything about it, from its bumpy start, to its slow growth, to its eventual deepening into a real, true, heartfelt friendship, is handled with a human, humane, charming, funny and emotionally heartbreaking style.

Andrews and Gomez-Rajon also make sure that the entire film does not revolve or evolve solely around Greg and Rachel. They keep the film entertaining, interesting and varied by cutting evenly and smartly to scenes between Greg and Rachel’s growing friendship, Rachel’s increasingly difficult and heartbreaking cancer fight, Greg and Earl’s bumpy teen friendship, endearingly odd interactions with a supporting cast of other quirky high school classmates, the relationships between Greg, Earl and Rachel and their parents, and the philosophical and psychological interactions between Greg, Earl and Mr. McCarthy. All of these varied relationships are deftly explored with clever writing and directing.

Gomez-Rajon and his talented cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, are playfully inventive with camera movements and angles, sometimes utilizing offbeat, unconventional angles, shots and movements to add to the original nature of the film. The production crew assists with interesting color schemes, and down-to-earth sets that present a very normal, steady atmosphere. The production crew, though, had a great chance to shine, though, in presenting various snippets from Greg and Earl’s hilarious satire films, throwing in dozens and dozens of smart, savvy film references in these homemade films, playing off scenes, titles, logos, costumes and dialogue from many famous films. The short scenes showing these snippets are not only great satire and humor, but they provide a welcome comedic relief to the underlying grief that exists, at first, around the edges of the film and, as the story progresses, starts to overtake the story.

And that grief would be a cancer fight. Of course, there have been hundreds of stories centering on cancer fights in film and television history. But, once again, Andrews and Gomez-Rajon are again clever and smart enough on this subject to wisely avoid clichés, generalizations and unoriginal approaches. They approach Rachel’s cancer fight with the correct, respectful and even-handed portions of reality, realism, humor, tenderness, grief, despair, difficulty, complexity, fear, apprehension and just basic human kindness. The cancer fight, and the cancer story in “Me” are there to provide a strong dose of gritty realism and reality to what could have been, in lesser hands, just another teen comedy. But cancer is indeed real—very real—and every now and then, the film world needs to present a cancer fight in an original context like the story mapped out in “Me:” with just the right mix of humor, emotion, grief, friendship, reality and hardship.

As the story progresses, all of the layered relationships progress as well—Greg and Rachel, Greg and Earl, Greg and his parents, Rachel and her mom, and Greg and Earl and Rachel, too. This is fascinating to watch, fascinating to think about, and just fascinating to watch as the talented actors tackle this increasingly complex and difficult storyline. Mann, Cooke and Cyler, all young but experienced actors, are simply exceptional in this film. They truly progress, move forward, change, learn and develop through the story—just like all better characters in better scripts in better films are supposed to progress, change, learn and develop. Throughout the film, the viewer will be thoroughly impressed with the evolving, moving and heartfelt performances of these young actors. They simply shine.

Rounding out the excellent production values is a quirky, off-kilter—but successful—music score from the great Brian Eno and Nico Muhly. They, too, avoid conventions and apply their own unique sound and style, which is how it should be for the film. Chung’s camera work and David Trachtenberg’s well-timed and paced editing ably assist in creating the film’s unique mood and atmosphere.

Also superbly assisting are break-out performances from Bernthal (worlds away from his character Shane in “The Walking Dead,” thankfully), Britton, and two other talented and funny actors in their own rights–Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon. These are performances from Offerman and Shannon that will surprise you—they are not the patented, deadpan or expected comedic performances you’ve seen before from these talented comedic actors. Offerman’s character, who is Greg’s father, is another somewhat hippie-ish, beatnik spiritual middle-ager who’s awkward and weird in his own way, and Shannon is Rachel’s distressed, lonely and heartbreakingly saddened mother, who is dealing with the extreme sadness of her teenage daughter fighting cancer. This performance by Molly Shannon in “Me” could simply be the best work by Shannon in any project in her career. Imagine the utter horror, fear and heartbreak of being a single mother dealing with your teenage daughter fighting cancer—well, you can see all of that emotion in Shannon’s performance.

At a recent question-and-answer session at the AMC Loew’s Georgetown 14 movie theater in Washington, D.C., after a screening of the film, Mann, Cooke and Gomez-Rajon all cited the overall originality of the script and its original, smart approaches to teens, teen relationships, teen-parent relationships, relationships in general, and the underlying aspect of dealing with a teen cancer fight, as a major aspect and foundation toward what makes the film so special. All praised the script and its original approach, and Mann and Cooke praised the director for his directness, humor, kindness, strength and originality.

Gomez-Rajon also noted, interestingly, a line of dialogue that Mr. McCarthy tells Greg and Earl about one particularly interesting aspect of life—that, sometimes, we still learn things about people even after they’re gone, and that can sometimes help deal with the grief of losing someone, or that can provide an extra, added, unexpected window into a person’s soul.

Perhaps that interesting thought can also be a good analogy for a good film, and a film as excellent as “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl:” Sometimes, after a movie ends and the viewer leaves the theater, people can still learn something about the movie, even after it’s gone from the screen. “Me and Earl…” does just that—you will be thinking about many things in life long after the movie has left the screen.

You will think about life in general, about the people in your life, about the relationships in your life, about the greatness that exists in people, about how people can surprise each other, about friendships, about how human kindness can surface in everyone, and about just how very precious every second of life is for everyone. “Me” is also about life and love and friendship and caring and relationships and the inherent power that exists in all of these basic, yet complex, aspects of life.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will, again, have moviegoers thinking about all of these things, and more, once the movie is over. Life is precious, and every second does count—so go out to the theaters and see “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” You’ll be glad that you did.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.