Is the teen cancer novel a thing these days? Last year we saw (the excellent) Fault In Our Stars, and this year we have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the tale of a friendship formed under duress when a boy’s mom forcing him to visit a little known classmate who has leukemia.
One more and we got ourselves a trend. Or at least, that’s how they do it in the media.
Anyway, this movie/story hasn’t got much in common with Stars, except in having cancer as a central element, and a desire to not be one of those stories. (Where “those” is some sort of clichéd cancer film, I guess.) The main character is Greg, a kid who surfs through school casually, fearfully avoiding being noticed by any of the groups, while cultivating superficial amiability amongst them all.
His dad is a sociology professor of some sort—apparently this doesn’t involve much works, so he hangs around the house making exotic and often foul dishes. His mom is a “concerned” person, who believes that her son should, I don’t know, do stuff about things. Greg’s super-antipathetic to the idea, but nagging wins and he ends up heading over to Rachel’s house, where desperate mom, Denise takes an instant shine to the glib, reasonably charming young boy.
Rachel’s not so big on the whole idea, but she understands the whole mom nag thing, so as a favor to Greg, she agrees to spend some time with him.
Obviously, a friendship forms, and becomes the basis for the movie, otherwise, y’know: No movie.
But the journey is the thing, and it’s done very well here in this script by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel. One might even suspect that it’s autobiographical, which is high praise for both screenwriter and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, “Glee”, “American Horror Story”). And it really is Greg’s journey.
The titular Earl in the story is a black boy from the wrong side of the tracks who grows up with Greg making movies which (in a very Michael Gondry/“Home Movies” style) are based on existing movies, with joke titles. “A Box of ‘lips Now”, as explained, is about a couple of guys fighting in Vietnam when they come across a box of tulips and decide they don’t want to fight any more.
Lotta movie jokes. “2PM Cowboy”. “My Dinner with André The Giant”. “Hairy, Old and Mod”. “A Death In Tennis”.
Really auteur stuff. Lotta foreign, arty things from the ’60s and ’70s, which is backed up by a combination of Greg’s weird Dad, and a too-hip-for-school History Teacher who has “RESPECT THE RESEARCH” possibly tattooed on the back of his neck.
Anyway, Greg does not call Earl his friend. He calls him his co-worked or collaborator. Greg has no friends, at least that he’ll admit to, but obviously that comes to a crashing head when he starts to really like Rachel. Not just like, but care and sacrifice for her. To the extent that he’s either with her or thinking about a movie he’s been pressured into making by hot girl Madison.
The whole “hot girl” dynamic thing is pretty funny and on the nose, too. Overall, The Boy and I sided with the audience’s 90+% over the critics’ 80ish.
Thomas Mann (Hansel and Gretel, The Stanford Prison Experiment) plays the lead convincingly, and is someone we’ll be seeing a lot more of. I mean, literally, he’s in six or seven upcoming movies in the next year. Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Quiet Ones) breaks out of the horror ghetto to play The Dying Girl with great sensitivity, although in no ways does she look ugly when she loses her hair.
Amongst the high school cliques that Greg has identified and loosely affiliated with, she’s a JAP—though he has a different term for Jewish American Princess—though I wondered if the presence of an actual Asian girl was a sort of comic nod to that.
Newcomer RJ Cyler plays Earl, the voice of reason. Former “Walking Dead” jerk Jon Bernthal (Fury) continues to remind us that that was just a role and he’s really a fine actor capable of all kinds of range.
Terrific performances from Nick Offerman (an icon now as the macho libertarian Ron Swanson on “Parks and Rec”) as Greg’s Dad, the shiftless Sociology professor and Connie Britton (“American Horror Story”, This Is Where I Leave You) as Greg’s Mom.
Especially great performance by Molly Shannon, whom I don’t think I’ve thought of since her 1999 Catholic schoolgirl movie Superstar. Here she plays the emotionally fragile, incredibly lonely single mother of Rachel, right on the line of comic (at least to teen children) and tragic (because, wow, incredibly tragic). There’s a lot of depth there.
Check it out.