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Arts & Culture

'Me And Earl And The Dying Girl' Tackles Life, Death, And Horrors Of High School

Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke star as Greg and Rachel, a couple of high school students who become unexpected friends in "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."
Fox Searchlight
Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke star as Greg and Rachel, a couple of high school students who become unexpected friends in "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."

Director of Sundance favorite talks about making a coming of age film

1: Film Review Of 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says the film is not just a coming of age film but a treat for anyone who loves movies.

Beth: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says the film is not just a coming of age film but a treat for anyone who loves movies. Greg: I have no idea how to tell this story. I don’t even know how to start it. Beth: So begins Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Greg our narrator is a geeky teenager just trying to survive high school says the film’s Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Alfonso: I wanted to shoot the high school the way it felt for him like terrifying and shoot it like an institution like a prison with fluorescent lights and kind of de-saturated and with very wide angle lenses so wide sometimes you can't even find Greg in the shot which is exactly what he wants. Beth: Greg’s MO is to be casually acquainted with all the cliques at school but not maintain membership in any particular one. That way he can fly under the radar and never be noticed by anyone. Greg: In high school the best case scenario just survive, survive without creating any mortal enemies or hideously embarrassing yourself forever. Beth: But then his mom changes everything. Greg’s Mother: Your father and I want to talk to you about something kind of sad. Rachel’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Beth: His mom wants him to spend time with Rachel but Rachel’s not keen on the idea. Rachel: I don’t want you hanging out with me. I don’t need your stupid pity. Its fine, you can just go. Greg: My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don’t hang out with you. Beth: Gomez-Rejon identified with Greg and the other characters in Jesse Andrew’s script based on his own novel. AI was just surprisingly moved by the way that the teenagers were portrayed so honestly and with so much respect in the parents also their flawed parenting was quite refreshing and humor was pervasive. Beth: That’s one of the surprises of the film, humor in the face of what could be a somber subject. Gomez-Rejon never flinches from showing how difficult life becomes for Rachel. But he also takes the time to appreciate how spending time with Rachel changes Greg in a positive way. Because of Rachel, Greg develops the courage to open up for the first time and reveal who he really is. Alfonso: But the film as they find each other, he starts to lose control but at the same time starts to learn how to pay attention and so the film gets quiet and still and by the end hopefully you can kind of see his coming of age and see visually and feel it as well through his performance. Beth: In addition to the winning performances of the three young stars, there's another aspect of the film that proves irresistible. Greg and Earl are prolific film makers. Earl: We make films. Rachel: Movies? Earl: Yeah, we’ve been making them for a few years now. We have like 42 in total. Rachel: Greg, you never told me. Earl: Well we never told anybody about them. They suck. Beth: Greg and Earl’s oeuvre includes works like ‘A Box o’lips Wow’ ‘Death in Tennis’ and ‘The Seven Seals’ all riffing on the art house titles they have a geeky passion for. We get to see snippets of these films and they’re both hilarious and sweetly endearing. Gomez-Rejon expanded on the film references that were in the book. Alfonso: I had to come up with the list of the references and who am I to select what director to pay homage to, so basically I put them all in, as many as I could and they took different shapes and forms. Some of them were sections in the DVD shop, some of them are the parodies that they make but then they deserve so much credit for that. Beth: That would be Pittsburg based filmmakers Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh who got to create Greg and Earl’s impressively outrageous body of work. The short films not only reveal the inventiveness of the teenage boys but they also infuse the film as a whole with a youthful energy, says Gomez-Rejon. Alfonso: That kind of energy of making a short film was very infectious and the big movie also had the feeling of a big student film. Beth: That’s a major part of its charm. The film feels like Greg and Earl could have made it. It feels fresh, sincere and personal. There's a meticulous sense of detail that makes this feel very specifically like Greg’s story. But it also feels completely universal. Who didn’t feel awkward in high school or who hasn’t been scared of intimacy? In the end, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about the unexpected ways people can connect and change each other, even after death. Alfonso: The people’s lives can continue to unfold after they die, you just have to pay attention. Beth: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about coming of age and coming out of your shell. And it’s rendered with a joyous appreciation of cinema itself. Rachel: Cut! That’s a wrap. Beth: Beth Accomando, KPBS News. Beth: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens this weekend at select San Diego theaters and for a complete list of the films parodies in the movies, go to Beth Cinema Junkie Blog at KPBS.org.

Companion Viewing

"Gregory's Girl" (1981)

"Rushmore" (1998)

"Submarine" (2011)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (opening June 19 in select San Diego theaters) won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

"I have no idea how to tell this story or how to start it…"

So begins “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Greg (Thomas Mann), our narrator, is a geeky teenager just trying to survive high school, the film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon said.

"I wanted to shoot the high school the way it felt to him, like terrifying, like an institution, like a prison with fluorescent lights and kind of desaturated colors with very wide angle lenses," Gomez-Rejon said. "So wide sometimes that you can’t even find Greg in the shot, which is exactly what he wants."

Greg’s M.O. is to be casually acquainted with all the cliques at school but not maintain membership in any particular one, that way he can fly under the radar and never be noticed by anyone. But then his mom changes everything when she pulls him aside for a family huddle to say, "I want to talk to you about something that’s very sad. Rachel’s been diagnosed with leukemia."

His mom wants him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke). But Rachel’s not keen on the idea.

She dismisses Greg's attempt at hanging out by telling him bluntly, "I don’t need your stupid pity just go home." Greg's response is honest: "I’m here because my mom is making me. My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don’t hang out with you."

How can Rachel resist that? So the two reluctantly hang out.

Gomez-Rejon identified with Greg along with Rachel and Earl (R.J. Cyler) in Jesse Andrews script based on his own novel.

"I was just surprisingly moved by the way that the teenagers were portrayed so honestly and with so much respect, the parents, also their flawed parenting was quite refreshing and humor was pervasive," Gomez-Rejon said.

That’s one of the surprises of the film - humor in the face of what could be a somber subject. Gomez-Rejon never flinches from showing how difficult life becomes for Rachel but he also takes the time to appreciate how spending time with Rachel changes Greg in a positive way. Because of Rachel, Greg develops the courage to open up and reveal who he really is.

"As they find each other he starts to lose control but at the same time starts to learn how to pay attention so the film gets quiet and still and by the end hopefully we can kind of see his coming of age, see visually and feel it, as well as through his performance," Gomez-Rejon said.

R.J. Cyler and Thomas Mann as Earl and Greg on the "set" of their film, "Box O' 'Lips Wow" in the new indie film, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."
Fox Searchlight
R.J. Cyler and Thomas Mann as Earl and Greg on the "set" of their film, "Box O' 'Lips Wow" in the new indie film, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."

The Complete Gaines/Jackson Oeuvre
The complete filmography of Greg Gaines and Earl Jackson.

In addition to the winning performances of the film’s three young stars (Mann, Cooke, and Cyler), there’s another aspect of the film that proves irresistible. Greg and Earl collaborate on making movies. Greg, in his emotional quirkiness, refers to Earl as a "co-worker" rather than a friend. He justifies the label by the fact that the two make films together.

"Yeah," Earl confesses in the film, "we’ve been making them for a few years, we have 42 in total. We never told nobody. They suck, I mean they’re terrible."

But of course they're not. They're amazing! Greg and Earl’s oeuvre includes works like "A Box o’ ‘lips Wow," "Death in Tennis," and "The Seven Seals" – all riffing on the art house titles that they have a geeky passion for. We get to see snippets of these films and they are both hilarious and sweetly endearing. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" recalls the recent coming of age film "Submarine," both are colored by their characters' love of cinema. "Submarine" is informed by French New Wave Cinema and "Me and Earl" takes its inspiration from the foreign and independent films that the main characters adore.

Gomez-Rejon expanded on the film references that were in the book.

"I had to come up with the list, the references, and who am I to select who to pay homage to so I put them all in or as many as I could and they took different shapes and forms, some of them are sections in the DVD shop, some are the parodies that they make, some of them are posters or props that appear in the movie," Gomez-Rejon said. "I was lucky enough to be there for some of the shoots and pre-production, and some of them, mainly the animated works happen in post-production, the sock puppets and all that. But Ed and Nate deserve so much credit for that."

That would be Pittsburgh-based filmmakers Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh who got to create Greg and Earl’s impressively outrageous body of work. The short films not only reveal the inventiveness of the teenage boys, but they also infuse the film as a whole with a youthful energy, Gomez-Rejon said.

"That kind of energy of making a short film was very infectious and the bigger movie had the feeling of a student film," Gomez-Rejon said.

That is a major part of its charm. The film feels like Greg and Earl could have made it. It feels fresh, sincere, and personal. There’s a meticulous sense of detail that makes this feel very specifically Greg’s story but it also feels completely universal – who didn’t feel awkward in high school or who hasn’t been scared of intimacy. In the end, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about the unexpected ways people can connect and change each other — even after death. (That's not a spoiler if you remember the film's title.)

"People’s lives can continue to unfold after they die, you just have to pay attention," the director added.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements) is about coming of age and coming out of your shell, and it’s rendered with a joyous appreciation of cinema itself.

Trailer: 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

P.S. The Blu-ray will contain more of the Gaines/Jackson oeuvre, the director said. Sweet!