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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘Me and Earl & the Dying Girl,’ ‘Testament of Youth,’ ‘Dope’

By Susan Granger

Granted, the title might be a bit of a turn-off, along with the fact that it’s about cancer. But let me assure you that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is one of the best indies of the year.

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High school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is one of those painfully shy, self-conscious kids who says he would rather remain invisible and eat lunch alone - or watching Werner Herzog movies in the office of his heavily tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) - than join a cafeteria clique.

Yet, like everyone else, Greg yearns for acceptance. His best-friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American classmate. Aspiring filmmakers, Greg and Earl make short parodies of classic and foreign films, dubbing them “Senior Citizen Kane,” “Sockwork Orange,” “Breath Less” and “2:48 p.m. Cowboy.”

Greg lives in a middle-class Pittsburgh suburb with his eccentric professor father (Nick Offerman) and overbearing mother (Connie Britton), who forces him to befriend a neighbor’s (Molly Shannon) daughter, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia.

When Rachel brusquely retorts that she doesn’t want his pity, Greg bluntly tells her, “I’m not here because I pity you. I’m here because my mom is making me.”

As they talk, Rachel recognizes Greg’s insecurity, and a strong bond grows between them. Watching Greg and Earl’s silly spoofs brightens Rachel’s day, particularly when her treatment gets tough.

Cleverly adapted by Jesse Andrews from his 2013 young adult novel and sensitively directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), the quirky, often comedic narrative adroitly captures the exquisitely awkward agony of teen angst, bearing an affinity with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Much of the credit for its effectiveness also goes to Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung for constant visual surprises, along with several animated sequences, and Brian Eno’s affecting score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a wryly inventive 9. Put this insightful, contemporary coming-of-age movie on your “must see” list.

Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir “Testament of Youth” recalls her experiences in England during World War I, revealing that conflict’s impact not only on her family but also on the culture of her country.

So it’s fitting that her story begins on Armistice Day, 1918, when she returns home to proper Edwardian society before revealing her story in flashback.

In 1914, just before the outbreak of the war, rebellious teenage Vera (Alicia Vikander) wants to attend Oxford, but her parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) in Derbyshire fear that getting more education will deter her chances for a suitable husband, which was a young woman’s primary goal at that time.

Fortunately, Vera’s supported by her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his mates, particularly idealistic Roland (Kit Harington), whose mother was a suffragette. Sharing a passion for poetry and writing, Vera and Roland, not surprisingly, fall in love.

But the primary drama revolves around Vera’s decision to leave Oxford to volunteer as a military nurse’s assistant, eventually chronicling the harrowing and heartbreaking devastation, evidenced in field hospitals near the front-line.

Vivacious Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is the sentient android in “Ex Machina,” while viewers of TV’s “Game of Thrones” know Kit Harington as ill-fated Jon Snow. Plus, there are strong supporting turns from Miranda Richardson and Hayley Atwell.

Adapted by Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) and directed by James Kent, it’s overly long and, at times, a bit tedious in its feminist frustration. Not quite on a par with “The Big Parade,” “Paths of Glory” and “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” it covers much the same emotional territory - but from a woman’s point-of-view.  Brittain’s book was previously filmed as a BBC-TV series in 1979.

On the Granger Gauge, “Testament of Youth” is an admirable, antiwar 8 - concluding with a powerfully persuasive pacifist plea.

“I was always this weird outcast kid,” explains filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa, whose coming-of-age teen comedy “Dope” was the hit of Sundance. “My parents are from Nigeria, so I’m a first-generation American. But I have this weird last name that people assume is Japanese. I like defying expectations.”

Famuyiwa’s breakthrough feature begins with its title’s dictionary definition. Depending on its context, dope can be 1) an illegal substance, 2) a person who acts in a foolhardy manner or 3) a term of praise in African-American slang, meaning coolness. All three come into play in this dramedy.

Nerdy Malcolm Adenkabi (Shameik Moore) loves ‘90s hip-hop, BMX bikes, and skateboards. A bright, ambitious student, he aspires to get into Harvard, but he lives with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) in Los Angeles in a crime-riddled Inglewood.

Malcolm also fronts a punk-rock band with his pals: Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), an androgynous lesbian whose sexual orientation is at odds with her church, and Jib (Tony Revolori), a geeky Pakistani.

One day, after school, Malcolm’s accosted by a local drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky), requesting that Malcolm to hook him up with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who is studying for her GED up the street.

But when there’s a shootout, Malcolm accidentally ends up with a backpack containing a gun and the designer drug called Molly. His dilemma: how to quickly unload the stuff without getting killed.

Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa frantically juggles so many themes, styles and tones that sometimes it gets confusing, even though narrator/producer Forest Whitaker insightfully interweaves the concept with its various subplots.

Personifying Malcolm’s adaptability, Shameik Moore establishes himself as a major talent, while Tony Revolori (the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel”) scores again with his comic timing.

On the Granger Gauge, “Dope” is a raw, raucous 7, an irreverent riff on the duality of race relations in America.


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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Posted 06/25/15 at 03:44 PM  Permalink



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