Greg Gaines doesn’t make friends easily. Not that he tries as he has concocted a way to get through his high-school days without making any. He is a funny smart-alec who is rather clever at telling people what they want to hear, but not very good at human interaction. He and his only friend Earl, an African-American who lives with his family on the wrong side of the tracks, spend their time together making really corny short film parodies of the classic movies they are oddly addicted too. They give them titles such as ‘A Sockworth Orange’ and ‘Pooping Tom’.
However Greg’s mother has plans to shake him out of trying to be so anonymous when she springs on him that one of his classmates has been diagnosed with leukemia. He neither knows the girl or has any intention of changing that as essentially he is pretty terrified of girls in general. However when he finds the only way to get his nagging mother off his case, he agrees to go visit. Poor Rachel has been fending phone calls all day from well-meaning strangers pouring out sympathy so its somewhat of a rude awakening when Greg just blurts out really why he is there. The brazen honest strikes a chord with her and sows the seed for what will become the most unlikeliest of friendships with unexpected easiness.
We know a lot what Greg is thinking thanks to his voiceover in appropriate moments, and so we know that as this is not a romance, Greg will not be taking Rachel into his arms and kissing her until she is better. In fact he really has his eyes set on the school hottie who he allows to ride roughshod over him as he is convinced that with his chipmunk face and scrawny body she would never ever go for him.
The relationship with Rachel does flourish even though we are neatly reminded of its lack of any real future with chapter titles saying ‘Day 44 of Doomed Friendship’. It does however make Greg’s posturing as someone who cares little about anything else, much more difficult to maintain. He’s been living in a world of his own, walking around with an art-film score in his head. Now he is engaging with a world where reality isn’t of his design.
For a movie that deals with teens it is remarkable mature, and one of the refreshing things about this story is that it tackles all the emotions and complex issues head on and does not try to dilute them to make them more palatable. It’s helped too by the eccentric cast of characters in their lives including Greg’s caftan-wearing house-bound Sociologist Professor father, his muscle-bound tattooed pot-smoking history teacher, and Rachel’s mother who smothers Greg with tight hugs and incessant kisses that are best described as ‘inappropriate’.
This comic drama is however not destined to make you want to reach for the Kleenex box in the same manner as last year’s teenage cancer drama ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ which this will inevitably be compared with. There is a sharp edge to Greg’s wit and his subversive humor as he holds out against his journey of self-discovery as long as he can. He knows he will have to come out of denial eventually.
This is the sophomore feature from filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who cut his teeth working with Martin Scorsese, and with a script written by Jesse Andrews which he adapted by his own novel. It is a flawless movie in every single aspect, from the cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung to the delightful soundtrack from Brian Eno. It is however the remarkable performances from the three young leads that made this piece come alive so wonderfully and that had the audiences at Sundance clamoring to their feet and giving them spontaneous standing ovations. Thomas Mann (‘Project X’) gave such an understated well-nuanced pitch perfect performance when he completely got under the skin of the self-deprecating Greg; Olivia Cooke proved to be fearlessly brave playing the head-shorn Rachel with such confidence and sincerity and without even trying to milk the potential melodrama of her character; and finally Earl played by newbie actor RJ Cyler who had less to say than the others, but was such a pivotal part of keeping the other’s friendship going.
Final credit goes to the animators who were responsible for making the short movies that dominated the boy’s lives. When at the end Greg finally gets to show Rachel the first movie that he has made for someone else, and you see that it is quite devastatingly beautiful and you realize that he has finally grown up. Then you may want to grab a Kleenex.