Have you heard the one about the misfit teen who meets a terminally ill young woman, and learns a few valuable life lessons before she shuffles off this mortal coil? Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has as well; the 42-year-old filmmaker has seen the same quirky coming-of-age movies and boy-meets-dying-girl flicks you have, and he’s all too aware that they can tread a fine line between maudlin and downright manipulative. But when it came time to make his own contribution to the genre — an adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the industry veteran knew that it wouldn’t be enough to just batter heartstrings and jerk tears from the audience. Gomez-Rejon wanted to inject his own love of movies into the mix. And he had to make it personal.
So when the film’s affectionately awkward hero Greg (Thomas Mann) and his buddy Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler) aren’t trying to negotiate the social minefields of life as a high-school senior, they’re either poring through Criterion Collection DVDs with their a Zen-hipster teacher or they’re making their own D.I.Y. updates of classic films. (Some sample titles: A Sockwork Orange, Ver’d-He-Go?, 2:48pm Cowboy.) And once this self-loathing adolescent is forced by his mother to befriend Rachel — the “Dying Girl” of the title, played by Bates Motel‘s Olivia Cooke — he finds himself forging a deep friendship and engaging with life in a more emotionally resonant way. But equally importantly, the young would-be auteur is inspired to use his filmmaking obsession to craft something that isn’t just a greatest-hits reel of his favorite movies, but also comes straight from the heart.
“One thing I realized early on [was]: I identified with Greg,” Gomez-Rejon says. “There’s a truth here that I related to that goes beyond it being a typical high school movie.” Specifically, the director knew what it was like to feel a profound sense of loss and grief: Shortly before he’d received the Me and Earl script, his father had passed away. “He was a big influence on me and my best friend. I suddenly found myself at a very difficult point in my life — which, ironically, was the exact same moment I started getting recognized for the work I was doing on American Horror Story.” (His directing on FX’s anthology show earned him an Emmy nomination.)
“But inside, I was not showing my true self,” he continues. “I had shut down completely. And with Me and Earl, it was like somebody showed me there could be an outlet for all that. I could throw myself into this — not just because it gave me a chance to celebrate movies, but it’s a way to pay homage to my dad.”
Gomez-Rejon’s influences are indeed worn on his sleeve here, from the various joke films within the film to explicit nods to other directors, notably Martin Scorsese (his first industry job, at 17, was working as a personal assistant for the Goodfellas moviemaker in New York). But the movie also attests to his love of actors, particularly a long sequence in which Greg and Rachel process their feelings over her decision to stop treatments — all done in one long, unbroken shot. “I’m more proud of that scene then anything else I’ve done,” Mann says. “When you have to be this emotionally available, you have to trust your director and know that he trusts you. And Alfonso uses actors like a paintbrush.” For Gomez-Rejon, the ability to watch a performer step into another character’s mindset is a big part of what attracted him to film sets in the first place. “What actors do — it’s so noble and so mysterious at the same time,” he says. “I love how they do what I can’t do.”
What he can do, however, is move a crowd. After the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival ended in a long standing ovation, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl quickly became both the event’s most buzzed-about title and the subject of a huge, near-record bidding war. It’s left a trail of tears and wadded up Kleenex in its wake since Fox Searchlight picked it up and screened it on the festival circuit, and as it goes into wide release now, seems poised to win over summer-movie crowds who want something besides superheroes and rampaging dinosaurs.
As for Gomez-Rejon, he’s referred to this valentine to his father (the film ends with a dedication to him) and his mentors as “having hit the reset button” for him creatively. “I went in thinking, ‘I should make a personal movie one day,'” he says. “And this confirmed that was what I needed to start doing. These are the kind of films I want to leave behind.”