Here’s how fast hype travels across the black hole of Sundance: In a matter of hours, a movie can go from unknown entity—blessed with no anticipatory buzz, inspiring little preemptive fanfare—to one of the biggest acquisitions in the history of the festival. That’s basically what happened yesterday, when Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, a coming-of-age film tucked deep into the U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup, premiered to a standing ovation at the Eccles Theatre. Critics with the foresight/dumb luck to have been in attendance began tweeting their instant rave reactions; A.V. Club contributor David Ehrlich fanned the fire by likening the movie to a “Fault In Our Stars for Criterion Collection fetishists.” The press that’s not there for the first screening takes the bait, reshuffling their schedules to open up a packed evening, and suddenly a movie no one was talking about has become the one everybody has to see. More glowing appraisals are issued. A bidding war ensues. And about 12 hours after it first sees the light of day, the movie sells to Fox Searchlight for what some sources are claiming could be as much as $12.5 million—more than previous record-holders Little Miss Sunshine and Hamlet 2. Oh, what a difference half a day can make.
In many respects, this is just business as usual in Park City, where the breakout hits tend to be the biggest crowd-pleasers. But for as well as it fits into the unofficial taxonomy of “Sundance movies,” Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (Grade: B+) is more than your average palatable quirk-fest. Working from a novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has crafted an unusually energetic teen weepie, one that resists some of the clichés of its genre and invests the remaining ones with humor and poignancy. If the film ends up winning the Dramatic prize—and nothing else in the lineup seems to have struck as much of a chord—it won’t be some disappointing victory of frivolous entertainment over real art. This is a movie that deserves to find its audience.
The first thing one notices is how dynamically the film has been directed; whereas “functional” describes the visual vocabulary of most teen movies, Me And Earl dips into a bolder bag of tricks. Gomez-Rejon, known for helming episodes of Glee and American Horror Story, employs elaborate tracking shots, lengthy single takes, stop-motion interludes, and plenty of unintuitive angles, courtesy of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (who shoots most of Park Chan-wook’s work). Oftentimes, the film exhibits the kind of energy—if not the precision and pacing—common to Edgar Wright comedies. (It took a few years, but Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is finally proving an influence on youth-centric cinema.)
The unconventional approach mostly extends to the film’s story and characters, too. Thomas Mann (Project X) plays Greg, a proudly invisible high-school senior forced for once not to take the path of least resistance when his mother (Connie Britton) insists that he spend some time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate diagnosed with leukemia. The Fault In Our Stars parallels aren’t off-base—Andrews’ novel has caught comparisons to John Green’s—but Me And Earl is after something a little different. For one, Greg is no knight-in-shining-jeans, no Augustus Waters. He’s more inarticulate, in a recognizably teenage way; he often says the wrong thing, behaves selfishly, flubs the sweet gesture. And his relationship with Rachel doesn’t unfold in all the expected ways. Those expecting a familiar love story may be surprised by the directions the story takes.
The first hour or so supplies a steady stream of madcap comedy. With his best friend, the titular Earl (RJ Cyler), Greg shoots elaborate, pun-based homages to his favorite movies, giving them names like Pooping Tom and The Total Lack Of Conversation, each stuffed into fake Criterion covers. (These brief glimpses of cinephiliac spoofing, reminiscent of both Be Kind Rewind and Home Movies, help explain why the movie has resonated with film buffs in Park City.) Eventually, however, Me And Earl takes a turn for tearjerker territory, and the poignancy of its upshot sneaks up on you. The schizophrenia is by design, and crucial to the film’s appeal: Greg narrates his own story, setting an initially light tone; when things get serious in the backstretch, beginning with a multi-minute two-shot in Rachel’s bedroom, it’s as if the movie itself is coming out of a cloud of denial. It’s an abrupt tonal shift with real purpose.
Some have already complained that Rachel, who remains confined to her room for much of the film, isn’t a fully developed character—that she’s just the girl with cancer that Greg dutifully visits. This, too, is pointedly intentional. More than just the story of a “doomed friendship” blooming in the shadow of imminent tragedy, Me And Earl is also a portrait of an artist discovering himself through emotional turmoil. The filmic references seem like affectations because they are affectations; like a lot of young filmmakers, Greg can only mimic what he’s seen and liked—that is, until he has an experience powerful enough to provoke a real personal statement. That’s what makes the film’s climax, set to a rich blare of Brian Eno music, so gut-punch powerful: It’s a tribute to cinema’s ability to speak emotional truths impossible to convey through mere words.
The catharsis in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl feels entirely earned. I’m not sure I can say the same for 99 Homes (Grade: C+), the latest socially conscious drama from Sundance regular Ramin Bahrani. Though he continues to shine a light on marginalized Americans, even as his films have gotten slicker and more star-studded, Bahrani has sacrificed much of the subtly of his early triumphs, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. Here, he tackles the economic downturn, and how scoundrels have benefited from it, through the melodramatic tale of a construction worker (Andrew Garfield, suitably frazzled) seduced into working for the pitiless real-estate broker (Michael Shannon) who evicted him and his family. It’s Bahrani’s plottiest movie yet, a kind of Wall Street for the Florida real-estate market, and the director stages it with maximum sound and fury—all shouting matches, urgent montages, and scenes of Shannon’s cartoon fat cat expounding on the virtues of greed. The sight of honest, hard-working Americans being booted out of house and home is powerfully upsetting, but Bahrani pushes the agitprop/manipulation factor too far, frequently cutting to sad-eyed moppets and digging the knife in early and often. The filmmaker’s anger is bracing. There just had to have been a better way to express it than a heavy-handed morality play.
For a less over-the-top depiction of financial desperation, look to the latest film from directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar). Their Mississippi Grind (Grade: B) is an agreeably shambling, low-key buddy picture about a hopeless gambling fiend (Ben Mendelsohn) who hits the road with a slick kindred spirit (Ryan Reynolds) in search of a big New Orleans score. Movies about gambling addicts tend to amp up the stakes, building to a big game or something of the sort, but Mississippi Grind never seems in a particular hurry to get anywhere. For long stretches, watching the film is like kicking around with a couple of charming losers, sharing stories and (brief) highs and (really low) lows. The lead performances are excellent—Mendelsohn, especially, works wonders with the affable pitifulness of his hopeless character—and the stench of bourbon and denial practically waffs off the screen. It’s only in the homestretch, when Boden and Fleck are forced to manufacture an ending, that Mississippi Grind goes bust. Not all crowd-pleasing moves are the right ones, even at a festival that rewards playing to the cheap seats.