Alfonso and Thomas and The Dying Girl

Former teenage Texas film buffs unite on homage-filled cancer comedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

(l-r) RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Photo by John Anderson)

They both grew up in Texas, but the similarities in their upbringings would seem to end there. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon came of age in Eighties Laredo, the child of a transnational family. His parents forbade him to speak English at home so he wouldn't forget his roots, but they also regularly made the 150-mile drive to San Antonio to expose him to theatre and museums. Actor Thomas Mann, on the other hand, grew up in sprawly 2000s Plano, a Dallas suburb famous for its strong public schools. He did some child acting early on – his mother was in advertising – but recalls an all-American youth playing hockey and winning competitions with his school theatre group.

The two might have spoken different languages at home, but both, in their own eras, became obsessive students of the universal awkward-teenager language of movies. Gomez-Rejon recalls borrowing a camera and working with his 10th-grade friends to make a horror film called Death ..., My Hobby. (He's emphatic that I get the punctuation right.) Two decades later, Mann, too, played adolescent filmmaker, co-directing YouTube parodies, including one of The Matrix that featured a friend emerging from a Saran-wrap covered bathtub in his tighty-whities.

How fitting, then, that Gomez-Rejon and Mann should discover each other as collaborators on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in theatres this Friday, June 26. Mann anchors the film as Greg, a goofball high school senior who whiles away afternoons with his buddy Earl (RJ Cyler) making elaborate spoofs of Criterion-worthy cinema classics. Titles include Eyes Wide Butt, 2:48pm Cowboy, and My Dinner With Andre the Giant. Their precocious hijinks are interrupted when Greg's mom forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who's been diagnosed with leukemia. Against his instincts, Greg is forced to grow up and reconsider his philosophies of friendship and art, and his position at the center of the world around him.

The film shouldn't work for several reasons. First of all, cancer is famously not the best source material for comedy. Secondly, teen cancer movies currently enjoy a level of cultural prestige just below that of Tyler Perry and Nickelback. Last June, A.O. Scott of The New York Times memorably slammed The Fault in Our Stars, an oncological tearjerker, as a "celebration" of "adolescent narcissism" that presented cancer as a gift, blessing its sufferers with a clarified understanding of their own lives and the ability to love more deeply and openly than others. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl arrives in similar packaging, this time with a spoonful of indie quirk. Audiences can't be blamed for expecting the Sundance version of the kind of story Scott derided.

Instead, Gomez-Rejon's film acts as a sort of antidote. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl studiously avoids a romantic bond between Greg and Rachel; Gomez-Rejon says that in casting, one of his priorities was to find leads whose chemistry read as firmly platonic. The screenplay also makes adolescent narcissism its subject matter, and not in a celebratory way. Greg is introduced as a clever taxonomist of high school cliques and a film savant obsessed with the highbrow and obscure, but he has a stunted interpersonal life and no mature artistic voice of his own.

It's a difficult balancing act to make Greg both immature and likable, childishly guarded and legitimately funny, an emotional idiot and a coming-of-age hero. The film hinges on Mann's performance. He almost didn't get the part. Despite easy chemistry with Cooke and a good ear for the screenplay's sense of humor, he struggled in auditions with some of the heavier dramatic scenes. "When you're trying to cry, it's like chasing a dog that's running away from you," Mann says of the audition process. "The more you chase it, the harder it is to catch."

It came down to a final round of chemistry reads with Mann and two other competitors for the part of Greg. Mann was asked to read a dramatic monologue he'd been struggling with. "I think he knew and I knew that something was off about it, and this might be his last chance to show that vulnerable side of himself," Gomez-Rejon says, noting that he'd long since been won over by Mann's comedic chops. "He left and he asked me if he could come back, and he came back later that day and he killed it. That's when I knew he had it in him."

Mann expresses gratitude to Gomez-Rejon for giving him a chance to tackle the role despite his initial struggles. "It ended up ultimately working out, because he trusted me," Mann says. "I discovered new parts of myself. This movie really opened me up emotionally. I discovered this new point of empathy that I hadn't really experienced before."

Critics agree. Scott, in his Times review, writes that his anti-cancer-film "resistance slowly but decisively crumbled, thanks to Mr. Gomez-Rejon's warm, low-key direction and the perceptive, lived-in performances of Mr. Mann" and others.

Mann's experience of growing up in the part mirrors that of his character, who learns to grieve over the course of the movie. For Gomez-Rejon, if anything, the filmmaking process was even more personal. Aside from seeing his teenage self in the loner filmmaker figure of Greg, Gomez-Rejon has dedicated the film to his father, who passed away a few years ago. "The movie offered me an opportunity to make something for him," Gomez-Rejon says. "Greg learns how to make a movie for Rachel, for somebody else, to express his feelings and his appreciation. I was doing the same."

For Mann, that much was clear from the start, which made him even more determined to get the performance right. "For Alfonso, this is a character he's living through," Mann says. "This is a vessel for his own grieving process."

It's been especially sweet for both Mann and Gomez-Rejon to share the film's success with their home communities in Texas. For Mann, it was the Dallas International Film Festival, where his acting coach showed up with students to support the star pupil's homecoming. For Gomez-Rejon, it was Sundance, where the film won Grand Jury and Audience awards, not to mention a standing ovation from an audience that included more than a dozen friends and family members from Laredo.

Even a few of the stars of Death ..., My Hobby showed up to offer support. But this moment was about more than reminiscing about goofy teenage movies or even celebrating the director's personal success. "They came because they all knew my father," Gomez-Rejon says.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens Friday, June 26. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke

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