Lives less ordinary…
“I’ve no idea how to tell this story,” says Thomas Mann’s Greg as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s sweetly sarcastic, deeply felt adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ YA novel begins. And as the alarm marked “unreliable narrator” howls none too subtly, a sense of relief also kicks in.
Too many recent coming-of-agers have spliced illness with easy arcs of romantic discovery, but Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance smash’s sense of awkward uncertainty inoculates against the feeling of being brutalised by weaponised Hallmark cards. You’ll be moved, but not to hurl.
Greg certainly isn’t an instrument of emotional coercion. An acutely self-aware, self-absorbed movie-nut, he makes mockmovies (example: A Sockwork Orange) and stays scrupulously low-key at high school – he even calls his mate Earl (R.J. Cyler) a “co-worker” in his desire to go unnoticed. Greg doesn’t even actively choose to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a little-noticed classmate who has leukaemia.
When he acts on his mum’s impetus to visit Rachel, they begin a connection with more twists than expected. If the chapter headings lean to the twee, what doesn’t is the study of an unlikely friendship – not, note, a romance. They bond, get bored, bicker: they ring true. And when they fall out because ‘sharing’ isn’t like logging on, the wounds aren’t easily salved.
If this is a story about half-formed people finding precarious common ground, what’s most remarkable is how well-formed these half-formed characters are. Greg is emotionally ineffectual but full of potential – and not just as a Werner Herzog impressionist. Cooke seeds depths in Rachel, a girl neither ‘special’ nor sentimentalised, nor reduced to a spur for Greg’s growth.
Earl is more of a cypher, problematically for the film’s main black character, but Cyler is languidly likeable. And he’s matched by Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Connie Britton, investing parental roles with human foibles and flaws.
Not every character is as voluble as Greg’s mum, but their inner lives are vividly suggested in peppy stylistic flourishes: overhead shots, talking posters. The Brian Eno soundtrack strikes some smart off-beats too, contrasted with other YA films’ mope-pop muzak. When Me And Earl makes us feel something, it rejects shorthand and points to the hidden lives behind surface sentiments.
Other US indie weepies would favour a tidy send-off but this one serves secrets, revelations, judicious loose ends – and packs a harder punch for it. Lives resist easy summary here. For all his flaws, at least Greg learns that much.