In the middle of the blockbuster season, it’s nice to see a small film that really could be a big hit — something quirky and smart like 2006’s August surprise, “Little Miss Sunshine.”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is this year’s hope amid the hype. After premiering at Sundance in January, it went on to win the festival’s grand jury prize and audience award. And it has a very big heart, especially for anyone who loves movies.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior who has spent his entire adolescence trying to blend into the scenery, keeping himself emotionally distant and safe from hurt. He smiles at members of all the cliques, and he tries to make them think he’s likable, but privately, he’s just trying to get through the day.
His only friend and companion is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler), who hangs out with Greg after school and helps him make movies that are parodies of some of the classics that they have watched, courtesy of Greg’s stay-at-home tenured sociologist professor father, played by Nick Offerman. And let’s just say that Greg’s dad shows them unusual, artsy, age-inappropriate films.
Using various handmade puppets and props, Greg and Earl imitate what they’ve seen with such movie spoofs as “Pooping Tom” (Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”), “2:48 p.m. Cowboy” (John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy”) and “A Sockwork Orange” (Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”).
Greg and Earl also spend lunchtime together in the office of their favorite teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), so that they won’t have to face the minefield in the lunchroom, which would force them to pick a table and commit to a particular group.
In short, Greg is committed to being uncommitted. He won’t even call Earl his friend. Instead, Earl is his “co-worker.”
All of this starts to change, much to Greg’s dismay, when his mother (Connie Britton) orders him to visit a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Her name is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and her single mother (Molly Shannon) is desperate for her daughter to have some moral support before and during her chemotherapy.
So Greg shows up at Rachel’s house and tries to play nice. But the artsy, smart Rachel isn’t in the mood for pity. She has already had too much of it and isn’t looking for more. And when she tells Greg to go away, he explains that he can’t — that he has been ordered to spend some time with her and that if he doesn’t, his mother will find out and make his life miserable.
Rachel relents and invites Greg up to her room. And a friendship starts to blossom. She likes his quirky humor and honesty, and he recognizes a similar spirit in her.
All of this might sound like it’s going to veer into sappy territory. Fear not. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who grew up in Laredo, keeps firm control of the movie’s deadpan tone with sly one-liners, visual allusions and subtle commentary on teen anxiety. And when Rachel earns Greg’s trust, he finally starts showing some of his secret home movies to her — and by extension, to us. They’re a hoot, just like Greg, and it’s a joy to spot all the visual cinema references, not only in Greg’s shorts but also in his room and other surroundings.
All three leading actors in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” are relatively new to the movie business. But you should be seeing a lot more of them in the coming years.
Mann, who grew up in Plano and whose biggest previous movie was “Project X,” is also starring in the upcoming “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Cooke is probably best known for her role in the TV series “Bates Motel,” and she’ll be featured in 2016’s “The Limehouse Golem” and “Katie Says Goodbye.” And “Me and Earl” is the first feature film for Cyler.
The supporting performances from Britton and Shannon as the two moms are outstanding, as you might expect. And Offerman is completely believable in his role as the housebound college sociologist who hangs around the house in a sarong and shows movies to Greg and Earl after school.
As most fans of young adult literature know, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is based on the popular novel by Pittsburgh’s Jesse Andrews. And yes, the movie was filmed in Pittsburgh. In fact, Greg’s house in the movie is where Andrews grew up.
If you’re musically inclined, you’ll also appreciate the soundtrack, which features original songs by Brian Eno.
In other words, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” hits all the right notes amid the din of summer.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon
Rating: PG-13 for drug material, sexuality, drug material, adult themes
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown
We talk to the director and stars of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and point out some of the funny allusions to classic films.