Phoenix Film Festival is one of my can’t miss on the year. They play such a variety of films, including a fair amount of genre pics (courtesy of the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, which runs concurrently), as well as indie comedies, docs and great shorts. And when it comes to marquee events, they never seem to program a film just because they can get a star there, or because it might be a world première. They are actively trying to bring the best films to Phoenix. This is certainly the case with ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, a touching and hilarious surprise of a film that brought Sundance audiences (and distributors) to their feet.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and written by Jesse Andrews, based on Andrews’ 2012 début novel of the same name, the film chronicles the friendship Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, Project X) is forced into by his mother (Connie Britton) when she discovers the daughter of her friend is dying of leukemia. Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) has just enough spunk to keep it together, though her mother (Molly Shannon) seems daily on the verge of a drunken nervous breakdown. If this doesn’t sound at all like a comedy, that’s because by all rights it shouldn’t be. However, there is so much joy in these characters and their inevitable intimacy, as well as the intentionally hopelessly inept cinematic tributes Greg makes with Earl (newcomer Ronald Cyler II), that the film never dips into maudlin until the final third, and by the time it does, it is earned well-over it.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years, and it does it completely with story. There are no hokey images of slow motion leaves falling or anything like that. This is all the reality of THE SPECTACULAR NOW, but funny, and with all the stakes of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS but never reaching the schmaltzy heights that film rode to the box office. I had a chance to talk with Gomez-Rejon after the screening at Phoenix about his career-turning film.

“I’d lost my dad about a year and a half before I read the script,” the director says about discovering Andrews’ screenplay, “I was quite confused and disoriented and wasn’t adjusting very well but luckily I had television.” Gomez-Rejon began his career in the industry as an assistant to Martin Scorsese, before becoming a second unit director, a commercial director, and finally a TV director, directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story. “I was directing a lot of American Horror Story and having a lot of fun with it and experimenting,” he remembers, “thinking I was going to get fired just doing bold things but I just kept getting promoted and it was wonderful, but I knew deeply that I needed to tell personal stories.” He was searching for a story to tell when his agent sent him Andrews’ screenplay, more as a writing sample as anything. “When it got to the scene with Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal as Greg’s teacher) saying ‘when people die their story continues to unfold, you just have to pay attention,’ I was very moved by such a simple idea that I desperately needed to hear,” he says, “and I latched on to the script at that point. …I very much identified with 17-year-old Greg. Then I was able to take that journey with him to the end and really process the loss… it integrated it into me.”

The film does such a great job balancing the comedy with the heavy subject matter, something Gomez-Rejon credits first to the writing. “The kids sounded like kids, they didn’t sound like a lot of high school movies,” he says, “for me, I just can’t relate to anybody cynical. These were just very funny and naturally authentic humans — it never talked down to anybody.” The next level goes to Mann and Cooke, the ‘forced friends.’ “It was about finding the right partner,” he says, “where it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t romantic, this is not that movie — and he tells us that a couple of times.” Olivia Cooke, who plays a similarly fated character on Bates Motel, was always his choice. The director felt she could handle both the comedy and the drama, without ever becoming melodrama – and these are some heavy scenes. Mann, whose engery ranges from disinterest to mild annoyance with his circumstances at the open, and becomes severely invested in this doomed relationship by the close, was the perfect foil. “This intense bond was beyond sexual,” Gomez-Rejon says about the not-relationship the two leads have, “maybe in about five years this will be a great love story. It’s very Harold and Maude-ish in that way, just a very deep connection.”

One of the things that really pays off in the film is Greg’s perspective, the lens through which we see the film. Sometimes he lets the audience in on what is about to happen before it does, sometimes his version of events is not exactly what we are seeing on-screen. “I think his voice is very authentic of someone that is a creator, a filmmaker, a story-teller,” the director says. The set up for the film is Greg writing this story, after the fact, as part of his college admission process. For Gomez-Rejon, “he’s telling the story the way one does in that moment; denial is a big part of that at times and also humor to balance out the serious, the bitter stuff in life.”

Because Greg is a filmmaker, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL has the beautiful but not over-stepped meta quality to it. The director agrees with me, “sure and I was also making a film – the film is a film for my father like he makes a film for Rachel.” The ridiculous homages Greg and Earl shoot also allow Gomez-Rejon to pay tribute to some of his mentors and inspirations. “Because Nick’s character [Nick Offerman, who plays Greg’s father] was obsessed with Criterion and watching Herzog films,” the director says, “it was an opportunity to not do the greatest hits of movies, but go through obscure movies and new movies. And have those movies be discovered by younger generations.” Be sure to stay through the credits when you see the film, as all the titles of their oeuvre flash on screen, including the one I most want to see, Pittsburqatsi, a tribute obviously to Koyaanisqatsi.

And while we’re on post-modern classical music, I have to say the music in the film, much of which is supplied by Brian Eno, is absolutely striking. It never overdoes the motion, but always seems to color every moment with the right amount of empathy and restraint. “We were coming up with a final film song to give it that short film structure,” says Gomez-Rejon of the film Greg makes for Rachel, “I remember calling my editor from Pittsburgh and saying ‘download [seminal 1975 Eno album]Another Green World, something really interesting is happening.” The editor heard this, and just kept listening and downloading and by the time the director saw the assembly cut, it was full of Eno music. “It just became the sound of the film,” he says, “we had to figure out if we can even afford this, we’re little movie, how’s this going to happen?” They sent the script to Eno’s agent, who loved it and made sure Eno saw the film – a cut with his songs in it, which is a big risk for a filmmaker. “He loved the movie,” the director says, “I have yet to meet him. But it was a series of these beautiful emails back and forth. He went to his vault, found new material and started writing new music for us – the final film has 19 cues repurposed older music and also some completely new music.”

What works so amazingly well in the film is that leukemia, a horrible ‘villain’ if there ever was one, is never downplayed, it is never glossed over. It is dealt with head on. But the spirit of the characters, their willingness to struggle through life and find joy where they can find it, is really inspiring. I wouldn’t have believed it possible. This is one of my favorites of the year so far.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL opens nationwide June 12th and is one of only handful of films to win both the jury award and the audience award at Sundance. The last one was last year, WHIPLASH.

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