Every winter, the Sundance Film Festival descends on Park City, Utah, filled to the brim with contemplative independent dramedies looking for suitors in the form of distribution, their path to the big leagues. Every year, one film seems to claw its way to the top of the heap, exploding forth from the festival with the momentum of a bullet. Last year Whiplash rode the hype train of the Grand Jury prize into a respectable fall box office run and three Academy Awards. This year, the film that came marauding out of Utah has the sort of title that just screams Sundance: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
The “Me” is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a weird, loner high school kid who spends his lunches in the office of his teacher Mr. McCarthy (Joe Bernthal) with Earl (Ronald Cyler II) watching classic movies and only barely tolerating each others’ presence. Greg is a bit of a misanthrope, isolating himself from everyone but Earl and his parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton), spending his free time making no budget spoofy reimaginings of those films he watches at lunch. His grand plan of aloofness is put into jeopardy when his mother pushes him to visit Rachel, a neighbor and schoolmate who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening case of leukemia (this, for those not paying attention, makes her “the Dying Girl”). Rachel sees through Greg’s sudden interest in her as the obligation it is, but despite this they manage to forge a bond. With the help of Earl, Greg turns to the camera once again, seeking to make a movie for her, something original and special, only to find that giving her the perfect gift is not as easy as it sounds, especially as her health worsens and time seems to be slipping away.
Even without the knowledge that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl premiered in the theaters of Park City, it would not be a stretch to make the claim that this is the sort of film that would be expected to screen at Sundance. All of the hallmarks are there, the soundtrack, the young cast of virtual unknowns paired with established, but not too ostentatiously famous, quirky character actors, the eccentric outcast at its center. The film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from a script by novelist Jesse Andrews, is assuredly familiar to the seasoned independent film veteran. Familiar can get tiring after a while, but it is not automatically a death sentence, and under the correct circumstances, it can still become something special.
Gomez-Rejon has a secret weapon up his sleeve to help differentiate it from the crowd: his cinematographer is Chung Chung-hoon, the favored DP of Korean superstar director Park Chan-wook (the man behind Oldboy and Stoker and Thirst among many other visionary films). His work on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is exciting and engaging, bringing to life the otherwise dull hallways of a nondescript high school. He shoots with flair, employing unique angles and a sweeping camera, making even the most drab of locations a treat for the eyes. With its glimpses of Greg and Earl’s home movies (they feel like a more sophisticated Be Kind Rewind) and cutaways to humorous stop motion yarn animation (it makes a modicum of sense in context), this is a film that always manages to visually keep its audience on its toes, an excellent method to ensure the audience remains engrossed to fully appreciate the story.
Also working in the film’s favor is a sharp sense of humor, buoyed by assured comic performance and a strong editing hand. The home movie spoofs are almost always a riot, and Greg’s arguably unhealthy young obsession with Werner Herzog is a constant delight (they go as far as to parody Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo). It makes the first two acts a joy, the sort of charming, exciting filmmaking that heralds a new talent on the independent scene. This biting, irreverent wit takes a backseat in the film’s lachrymose third act, one that fully embraces the genre’s conventions in such a way that is a detriment to the pleasures of its first two acts. It is in the final twenty minutes that the familiar begins to turn; the quirky subtitles and narration wear out their welcome, and the sins of Sundances past take over. It is disappointing how boring the final act of the film is; it nearly threatens to undo much of the good will its first hour establishes.
Despite the misgivings of its third act, it is easy to see why the seasonal denizens of Park City found Me and Earl and the Dying Girl so edifying. It provides strong performances from its two leads and much of its supporting cast, a charming, quirky outlook on life (a life where movies play a monumental role, something that will always pique the interest of a festival crowd), a unique visual acuity and the pathos to make it all mean something profound. The profundity is where the film comes up short, threatening to capsize the whole enterprise, but managing to keep itself upright ever so delicately. The good certainly outweighs the bad, and while Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may fall short of the rapturous praise it received at Sundance, it remains a film worthy of its time.