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Film Review

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

So few American films deal intelligently with teenagers coming of age. The Fault in Our Stars is a recent success, but most are lame, aimed at teenagers themselves. Foreign film makers do far better. But a terrific new independent film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, looks at two teenagers, one black, the other white, who love classic films. Gomez-Rejon has been a director of various TV series, such as American Horror Story, but this is only his second feature film. His new film shows us Greg and Earl, two buddies that are seniors in high school, and obsessed with movies. They have made about 50 distinctly amateur films that are their versions of classic films: Eyes Wide Butt, Doughnut Now, Sockwork Orange, Senior Citizen Kane. You get the idea. Their films are quirky yet inspired. They use household props like aluminum foil and stuffed animals. They know many film lines by heart and it is part of the comedy as we see them reenact various scenes. Greg's imitation of Werner Herzog is hilarious. Greg lives a comfortable middle class life, CJ is in a poorer section of town, yet they are close. Both like their history teacher and spend a lot of time in his office eating lunch or just hanging out. Greg's mother is sympathetic but concerned that Greg is not going to go to college. His father is an aging hippy, alway extolling exotic foods.

Greg narrates most of the film, and early on introduces us to the various tribes in the school: the goths, the elites, the jocks, the arts, and many others, some quite funny. The scenes of school, especially the cafeteria, show mostly benign chaos. Greg himself does not consider himself part of any group and tries his best to get on with everyone. He is always humorous, mostly at his own expense. Here is a kid, like many, who doesn't seem to know who he is, and believes that an attitude of detachment is best. He hasn't yet found his authentic self.

But one day his mother tells him that Rachel, a popular girl he barely knows, has leukemia. His mother urges him to spend some time with her, since she is now at home and will shortly begin treatment. For Greg, this sounds terrible on many counts, least of which is that this is a pretty, popular girl who was never in Greg's world. But he does go to Rachel's house and is greeted by Rachel's mother, who is clearly drinking to self medicate. "Here are two cute little mice to see you, honey". Greg doesn't know what to say to Rachel but tries to cheer her up. Rachel of course realizes that Greg's mom forced him to come over, yet begins to like the company. During one visit Earl tells Rachel that he and Greg make movies. She asks to see one and becomes fascinated by their quirkiness. The film's story continues, punctuated by titles (129th Day of Doomed Friendship), not always in predictable paths, but begins to gather momentum and power to transcend what might otherwise be a typical teenager film.

Gomez-Rejon brings unusual imagination to his films, from frantic camera movements at first, to short animated sections, such as Greg's view of popular girls as moose, trampling the mice (himself) underfoot, using small stuffed animals. Or Greg seeing a huge stuffed panda watching him. Those scenes are funny, each with a certain truth. The acting is excellent with largely unknown actors: Thomas Mann plays Greg and RJ Cyler plays Earl. The soundtrack, an eclectic pop mix, is a key part of this film. And the boys' films are really a character in themselves. There are sad things here too, but the sadness is offset by humor and wisdom. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a rich film, insightful, tender, sweet but not maudlin, about a topic that is not often dealt with. I loved it and and think that this director is definitely headed in the right direction. Just opened at the Kabuki and playing in most Bay Area counties. Running time: 105 minutes.

Coincidentally, another good film about teenagers obsessed with films, has just opened. This one, The Wolfpack, is a documentary about 6 brothers on the Lower East Side, who were home schooled by their mother and forbidden by their father from leaving their high-rise apartment. Their connection with the real world is through the reel world, films. They watch endless films, and just like Greg and Earl, do their own imaginative versions of the classics, using household items as props just as Greg and Earl. The Wolfpack is fascinating, well done, and worth watching in conjunction with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It is serendipitous that both are screening simultaneously. Just opened at the Embarcadero, the Rafael, and the Shattuck. Running time: 89 minutes.

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