"Death is ever with us," no more so than last week for me. A beautiful young creative woman of 35, Courtney Mullin, struck down by a sudden heart attack. We had recently collaborated on a review of her client's restaurant, Albright, at the Santa Monica Pier. We all grieve for her and her family. Then my close friend of many years, Bob Chartoff, co-producer of "Rocky," died at 81 of pancreatic cancer. Again, we all grieve. Saturday at the Academy I viewed a stunning, emotionally shattering and utterly successful fllm, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, about a teenager's death. I went because it had won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Prize at Sundance and the Friday reviews were superb. Despite my downbeat emotional state, I laughed and cried and came out of the theatre feeling strangely uplifted. In a session after the film, the director and some of the actors appeared on stage and discussed its making. I had a chance to talk one-on-one with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who delighted in hearing some of my stories about his hero, director Billy Wilder. (My Huffington readers will recall that I produced Billy's last film, "Buddy, Buddy," with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.) Alfonso is a terrifically talented director who comes out of television (American Horror Story, Glee) and then the horror film genre ("The Town that Dreaded Sundown") Here he has achieved an almost impossible feat: to make a film about teenagers which neither panders to them or glorifies them, but just portrays them honestly in all their teen angst. It certainly is one of the better pictures this year. Fox Searchlight picked it up for a record $12 million after some fierce bidding at last January's Sundance festival, and although it has no big stars and a weird title, I predict it will sweep many awards come that time.
The picture stars a dour-faced young high school senior, Greg, played by Thomas Mann (Project X), a radiant girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, from Bates Motel), Earl, a delightful young black man, played by Ronald ( (R.J.) Cyler, who never acted in a film before, and a host of older actors who are better known to us. (I watch Nashville so I was delighted to see Connie Britton as Greg's mother. The professor father is well-played by Nick Offerman, and The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal plays a sympathetic history teacher) Apart from its obvious audience of 20-somethings and younger, any parent with teenagers must see it, and then anyone who is not afraid of talking about or viewing the spectre of death will appreciate it. The premise is simple and powerful, a stronger quirkier version of last year's cancer-victim film, "The Fault in Our Stars." (I was also reminded of my frined Arthur Hiller's movie of decades-ago, Love Story, Ryan O'Neil and Ali McGraw.)
Here the reclusive self-depricating teenaged Greg is told by his mother that he must visit a high school classmate, Rachel, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. A nerd who spends most of his time with his friend Earl making satirical bad little stop-motion animation movies, tributes to famed films (A Sockwork Orange, A Senior Citizen Kane) which are scattered through this film, he fights the request but finally gives in. Greeted by the girls' inappropriately flirtatious, wine-guzzling mom, Molly Shannon, Greg awkwardly enters the house. The girl tells him outright: "Don't come here to pity me." He explains why he is there and asks the favor of please spending a few minutes with him to placate his mother. Despite this lack of initial eye contact, they quickly establish a rapport and become platonic friends, and he accompanies her on her chemotherapy trips. This blossoming friendship is the heart of the film, it is believable and affecting. The last third of the movie sees he and Earl making a film for and about Rachel, as forcefully suggested by Rachel's attractive friend, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes). The film is based on a young adult novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the script under the guidance of screenwriter Dan Fogelman, one of the producers along with Jeremy Dawson and Nora Skinner. Brian Eno did the music and Chung-hoon Chung was the able cinematographer.
The panel told the Academy audience about the experience of making the film in 22 days in Pittsburgh, Jesse's home and the location of the novel. The story of a detached awkward young guy who learns that he must take himself and his relationships with others more seriously, dealing with the messiness of real life, it becomes something more....a heartbreaking whimsical love story of sorts. Yes, it's a touching tearjerker, and I admittedly cried at the end, but so what....life is a balance of tears and laughter.
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