- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 11, 2015

Teens seldom, if ever, pause to contemplate their own mortality, viewing death as an abstract concept that happens solely to the elderly and to video game characters. One of the strongest qualities of the film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” opening Friday, is that it takes a poignant yet humorous approach to Rachel, a young woman battling leukemia, as seen through the eyes of Greg, the boy who unwittingly befriends her.

“When your best friend is suddenly gone, how do you make sense of it?” said director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who lost his father not long into his film’s gestation. “I was hoping that by making this movie that I would start to integrate that into my life, and do it through a comedy and walk away feeling that there is some sort of continuum, even if the shape isn’t that well-defined of that person. I found a way [through this film] to say what I was feeling.”

A frequent critique of teen films is that the young people portrayed act and speak like adults. In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” based on a book by Jesse Andrews, Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) act their age — by turns awkward, shy, hopeful and confused.

“I wasn’t interested in portraying adolescents as really cynical or too cool,” Mr. Gomez-Rejon said. “But I did want to spend time with them and learn from them.”

“I don’t think we’re talking down to teenagers” in the film, said Miss Cooke, who plays the young woman stricken with cancer. “I don’t think these characters are written as stereotypes. The grown-up characters aren’t written as stereotypes either. They’re all fleshed-out real characters that have real dialogue. No one’s trying to say the most profound thing or the perfect thing in the moment.”

Miss Cooke, a British actress, affected American mannerisms and accent for the film. In addition to studying regional accents and speech patterns — the film was shot in Pittsburgh — Miss Cooke researched her character by visiting the children’s ward at UCLA to meet young people afflicted with cancer, which she said helped her get “physically and mentally in a different state” for her depiction of Rachel’s decreasing health.

“Saturday Night Live” alumna Molly Shannon portrays Rachel’s mother, Denise, who deals with her daughter’s illness with the help of a smile, poorly timed attempts at gallows humor and an ever-full glass of red wine.

“She’s really, really funny and interested and so curious about your life,” Miss Cooke said of her on-screen mother, “and she’s so chatty.”

Mr. Gomez-Rejon also said the film helped him work through some of the pain of his own adolescence, during which, he said, “I did nothing but watch movies.”

Indeed, Greg and Earl are amateur filmmakers who remake their favorite films as cheaply and quickly as possible. “I was very quiet, very shy and insecure,” Mr. Gomez-Rejon said, “but by the [end of high school] I was starting to get that confidence and knowing what I wanted to do with my life.”

The heart of the film entails Greg’s visits to Rachel’s bedroom and sick ward, where the two speak on all manner of subjects in the often-uneasy parlance of adolescents trying to define their own identities and learning how to relate to the opposite sex.

Mr. Gomez-Rejon said he knew he had his duo when Mr. Mann, during auditions, had such an easy and natural repartee with Miss Cooke, who had already been cast as Rachel.

“The three of them have to have the right kind of energy flow,” Mr. Gomez-Rejon said of Miss Cooke, Mr. Mann and Mr. Cyler, who plays Greg’s young friend and fellow filmmaker. “Olivia came first, and then you start doing chemistry reads. And then there has to be a chemistry [between Greg and Rachel] that doesn’t seem sexual, because the film is going to go in a different direction. Then you find the right Earl who works in the mix, both individually and as a triptych.”

“We became fast friends,” Miss Cooke said of her co-star, Mr. Mann, with whom she shares most of her on-screen time.

While “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is high on laughter — not least because of Greg and Earl’s poor “remakes” of their favorite films — Rachel’s precarious health is ever-present. Mr. Gomez-Rejon said that unflinching examination of the possibility of young death is important for the characters and for the audience.

“I was hoping that by making something that I would work through some of my feelings [and] that I would leave something behind that maybe other people would find comfort in,” he said.

As equally important is keeping alive the memories of those who have gone before us. In that spirit, the film is dedicated to Mr. Gomez-Rejon’s late father, Julio.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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