One of the hottest tickets at this year’s Sundance film festival was for a U.S. Dramatic Competition film that entered the event as an under-the-radar offering and ended as the presumptive favorite to win the Grand Jury Prize (and, even more likely, the Audience Award): “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a gorgeously conceived and executed variation on the teen weepie that recalls “Rushmore” and references Werner Herzog while sharing emotional DNA with “The Fault in Our Stars.” I know, weird, right? Yes, this is a special, odd movie, and it’s the kind of unique experience that filmgoers will adore when it descends from the mountains of Park City. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a stunning sum of its parts: A tonal high-wire act by Jesse Andrews (who adapts his own book), confident direction from “American Horror Story” vet Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, some of the best cinematography of the fest courtesy of Chung-hoon Chung, a breathtakingly perfect score from Brian Eno, and a strong ensemble from top to bottom.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) has built walls to protect himself on the deadly journey through high school. He envisions his high school as not just one that’s broken into cliques but practically functions as a series of warring nations forced into coexistence. The cafeteria is Kandahar. And so Greg mostly avoids as much of it as possible. He knows the right platitudes to hurl at each clique ("Tests? Been there!") as he passes it in the hall, remaining a favored nation without really committing to anyone or anything. His only friend is a kid named Earl (RJ Cyler), who he refers to more as a “co-worker” given that they make short films together and avoid the high school social scene by hanging out in the office of their history teacher (Jon Bernthal), watching “Burden of Dreams.” About those movies that Greg and Earl make—they’re hysterical. The concept is that they take a classic film, usually something they’ve seen through the Criterion Collection, change the title into “something stupid” and then shoot it. So, “Midnight Cowboy” becomes “2:48 Cowboy.” “Breathless” becomes “Breathe Less.” I won’t even tell you what “Apocalypse Now” gets turned into or how “Rashomon” becomes “Monorash.” Some of them are stop-motion animation, some are not—but Greg keeps them largely to himself, another way to distance himself from kids his own age.
The walls that Greg has put up around his life to keep real emotion at bay crash when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with a relatively unpopular but sweet girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Greg reluctantly gives in, and a “doomed friendship” begins. The film is constantly subtitling events like “The Part Where I Panic Out of Sheer Awkwardness” and which day Greg and Rachel are in in their doomed friendship. Although, as Greg constantly reminds us, this is not the touching, romantic story you might expect from the opening act.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is more consistently clever than any film with teen characters of the last several years (with the possible exception of the great "Perks of Being a Wallflower"). It’s a film about a young man who was raised on Herzog and the unique cuisine of his eccentric father (Nick Offerman), who could have been a cynical, self-referential mess, but Mann grounds him in something beautifully relatable. He uses his intelligence as a shield, and it’s only when Rachel starts watching his films and becoming his friends that every part of his defensive structure collapses. Greg, Rachel and Earl are characters that Andrews and Gomez-Rejon clearly love, and that love becomes infectious. We enjoy the time we spend with them, making the final act of the film all the more heartbreaking. I’ve never heard a press audience at Sundance more audibly emotional.
The narrative choices and strong performances would be enough to make “Me and Earl” interesting on their own, but the movie rises to something else most of all through Chung’s cinematography and Eno’s score. Chung is Park Chan-wook’s most frequent collaborator, and he brings that low-angle striking sense of composition that he did to projects like “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” and “Stoker” to a genre that almost never attempts a visual language as daring as this film. Yes, it’s a teen weepie that looks amazing, balancing foreground and background compositions in fascinating ways. There’s a crucial scene between Rachel and Greg that is shot in such a unique way (with her in the foreground, and him in the background, instead of traditional shot-reverse-shot) that it becomes much more emotionally resonant than it otherwise would. And the score is simply stunning, particularly in the way Gomez-Rejon lets Eno go entirely loose in the final act, not just sticking with traditional sweeping strings but finding something better and more effective.
Most teen tearjerkers send you out into the light feeling manipulated and exhausted. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” had an opposite effect on me—it made me want to create. It’s a film that values intelligence and artistic pursuits in young people, teaching us that it is how we relate to one another and what we leave behind that really matters. It will never make as much as a blockbuster like “Fault in Our Stars,” but those who fall in love with this movie, and there will be many of those people, will hold it dear to their heart for many years to come. Years after this Sundance has closed, people will be sharing this film.