dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
High school is a collection of sovereign states, and Greg (Thomas Mann) floats aimlessly like a pirate (the Captain Phillips kind — his words) not making an effort to stand out or make any friends, except for Earl (RJ Cyler), who is not his friend, only his co-worker (again, his words.) Then one day a girl from his school gets diagnosed with leukaemia, and his life changes forever.
That all sounds way more dramatic than the film actually is. It’s really a coming of age story, and also a tale of friendship, growing up, and facing your fears. Fear of success, of people, of death, of living. The story itself is very simple, and it could have been sappy, it had the potential to be The Fault in Our Stars or If I Stay, but through style, wit, and imagination, it rises above the typical dying-teen trope and enters the realm of the quirky-through-strangeness. It’s not quite quirky for the sake of quirky, no characters have something that they do like memorise famous people’s last words or put an unlit cigarette between his lips, but they are not totally normal either. Except their “quirks” make them interesting not quirky.
Did I say the word quirk too many times?
The point is, Greg is strange. He is anti-social and obsessed with films. His room is filled with bits and pieces of cameras, and it makes sense that he is strange because his parents are strange. The family dynamic is very important for this character, and the way mother, father and son (and cat?) interact feels realistic on top of all the oddities of their personalities. And other than his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman), the only person he really spends any time with is Earl, his co-worker (who is really his best friend), and they make films together. They take real movies, and create a silly title to go with an even sillier “re-make” (2:48PM Cowboy, Senior Citizen Kane, The Rad Shoes) but they never show the films to anyone. The dynamic between them is also very interesting, because they came together in the very same organic way in which most friendships are formed: circumstance and similar tastes.
The big disruption in Greg’s life comes when Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukaemia and Greg’s mother forces him to go hang out with her, and that’s when what Greg refers to as “doomed friendship” begins. It’s tentative at first, painfully awkward, but sort of sweet, because Greg is so out of his depth, but his strangeness seems to relieve Rachel from the burden of her disease for a little while, and after a few weeks, they actually begin to enjoy each other’s presence, even though Greg is still mostly closed off.
There are high school cliques, pretty girls, talk of prom, and voice over narration, and, as I said, it could have been The Fault in Our Stars if someone like Josh Boone had made it, but what Gomez-Rejon does with this film is extraordinary. He creates this almost Wes Anderson-esque world that is very reminiscent of the days of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but it’s much more grounded in reality. The visuals of the film are great, beautiful symmetrical shots, gorgeous colours, fun sets. And the music is well and appropriately used, not an indie fest like most indie films these days.
It’s truly refreshing to watch something like this and feel invested in the characters and completely immersed in the world. It’s an incredibly bittersweet story with its up and downs, and the ending in particular feels very much earned. They even manage to squeeze out one last tearful laugh out of you in one of the last shots.
review by Mariana Duarte