Teens’ performances ring true

The Harry Potter series was credited with turning on a new generation of readers. But other “young adult” books may have a bigger impact on raising real-life issues.

Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann in a scene from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann in a scene from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Take terminal illness.
It was once considered a taboo topic; too depressing to produce best sellers.
The movies also largely avoided it as a topic, except as a convenient plot device, in films for younger
Older readers may recall Bette Davis suffering with dignity in Dark Victory (1939), while Ali Mc- Graw in Love Story (1970) was a more glamorous and popular example of the genre.
Judy Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper (2009) explored the use of in vitro fertilisation and a genetic “double” to provide body parts for an ill sibling.
Last year, John Green’s The Fault in our Stars tapped into a large audience of young people as two 20-somethings, played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, formed a romantic relationship after meeting at a cancer support group.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Fox Searchlight) takes a less well-trodden and more rewarding route to audience engagement.
The “Me” of the title is a shy, introverted student, Greg (Thomas Mann), who has few friends except for “co-worker” Earl (R.J. Cyler) .
They share interests in making parodies of famous films, hanging out in a nerdish teacher’s office at a Pittsburgh high school and generally avoiding as much contact with outsiders as possible.
The plot kicks off when Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) orders him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow student recently diagnosed with leukaemia.
His initial reluctance soon dissipates as Rachel proves to be a resilient companion and completely lacking in self-pity.
At age 17, romance is not yet part of their world and Greg, as the narrator, assures his audience that Rachel
isn’t actually going to die.
With Earl as a third companion, they spend a lot of time together; so much so that Greg’s studies suffer and he’s threatened with failure at entering college (university).
It is those realistic concerns about friendships, the future and even just navigating the busy school cafeteria that lift the plot well above the mawkish sentimentality often seen in similar examples.
The convincing portrayals of the young leads play up the sometimes dark but never downbeat humour, lulling the audience into a complacency that is soon shattered when Rachel takes a turn for the worse.
The movie parodies add to the quirkiness — they will appeal mainly to film buffs — but unlike so much Hollywood comedy are never irreverent or gratuitous.
About 40 arthouse classics, Citizen Kane and, in particular, the 1940s Archers productions of British film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman) are all referenced.
These mini-movies culminate in a tribute to Rachel and provide the film’s climax.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, working from a script by Jesse Andrews based on his own novel, does an excellent job. This is only Gomex- Rejon’s second feature after a time in TV (American Horror Show) and it was well received at the Sundance festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and audience favourite award.
Adding to the all-round excellence is Brian Eno’s music and the superb location filming. It adds up to a front-runner for recognition in next year’s Academy Awards.
Rating: Mature audiences (offensive language); 105 minutes.

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Nevil Gibson

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