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Cancer, Cinema and College Approaching

Each year at the Sundance Film Festival there are a few films that stand out in the midst of the quirky, coming-of-age dramedies that highlight the programming every year. Oddly enough, one of the most acclaimed movies to come from Sundance this year is a quirky, coming-of-age dramedy, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Winner of the festival’s Grand Jury and Audience awards and adapted from the novel of the same name, the movie centers on Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), an awkward high school senior who loathes social cliques and is afraid to call people his friends. His “co-worker” is Earl (RJ Cyler), who he collaborates with on cheap parody films on classic cinema. His wandering life changes when his mom encourages him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia.

It’s normal for some people to draw similarities to this premise with the likes of “The Fault In Our Stars,” which is even more interesting since both films are based on novels. “The Fault In Our Stars” used cancer as its central plot device, but “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” differs by removing the romance, and instead focuses more on Greg’s road to potential maturity through his friendship with Rachel. Through this distinct approach, along with an abundance of sensible charm, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” stands out as one of the best movies of the year so far.

Previously known for his lead role in the debaucherous party movie “Project X,” Thomas Mann is excellent as Greg. He nails down the character’s neurotic awkwardness, and is also quite grounded in Greg’s development into a more refined person than he was before.

Olivia Cooke, best known for her role in the series “Bates Motel,” delivers some of her best work as Rachel, aka “The Dying Girl.” She’s equally endearing as she is poignant for the health transition the character undergoes, and her upbeat personality before undergoing chemotherapy contrasts nicely with Greg’s idiosyncrasies.

The supporting cast is also quite stellar, with big names from television that include Nick Offerman, Connie Britton and Jon Bernthal. Offerman is expectedly hilarious as Greg’s oddball father, and Britton embodies pleasant warmth as Greg’s encouraging mother. Bernthal, even with a small role, is solid as Greg’s somewhat eccentric but prudent history teacher.

The scene-stealer though is RJ Cyler as Earl. Surprisingly, this is Cyler’s first-ever feature film role, and is without a doubt a major breakthrough for his acting career. Cyler embodies Earl’s street smarts to a great comedic effect, but he shines even more in the character’s sincerity for the people he deeply cares about.

Jesse Andrews brilliantly adapts his novel to the screen with dialogue that crackles with humor and subtle charm left and right, and it all ultimately lends a fresh voice to modern teenage lingo. In addition, his passion for cinema is aptly conveyed through the creative titles he devises for Greg and Earl’s parody films.

Best known for his direction of “American Horror Story” episodes, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon at first seemed an unlikely choice to helm a movie of this content, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Throughout the film’s first half, he displays a swift style that not only calls back to his unique camera angles in “AHS,” but also to the likes of Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese for the abundant camera movement. By the time the second half picks up his aesthetic becomes more stable, and also utilizes longer takes that ground various scenes with adept realism.

If you’re a general cinema aficionado, or fond of dramedies that don’t overstate their emotional subject matter, then “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will likely satisfy your expectations. The movie certainly deserves the high praise it received at Sundance, so don’t be surprised if it becomes an indie sleeper hit this summer.

RECOMMENDED: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is consistently charming and mature, and certainly one of the best films to come from this year’s Sundance festival.