Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 45 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance
There is plenty of laughing and a bit of weeping in this wonderful film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and scripted by Jesse Andrews from his own novel. This comedy/drama is one of the best films about teens that I have seen in a long time. And though the adults—three parents and a teacher—are a bit different, the father and the teacher even eccentric, they are not the clueless idiots as portrayed in far too many teen films, such as Ferris Buhler’s Day Off. But, though the adult actors are excellent, the film is carried by its young thespians, Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, and RJ Cyler. They all give pitch perfect performances as Rachel, Greg, and Earl, respectively.
Seventeen-year-old Greg, sitting in front of his computer, is hard pressed to begin his story, so he starts by describing how during his senior year he copes with life at the Pittsburgh high school he despises. Lacking in self-esteem, and apparently unable to get close to anybody or group, he makes sure he has a nodding acquaintance among the jocks, the goths, stoners, and artsy thespians. This provides some insurance against being considered an outsider and thus being bullied. A recurring metaphor of his societal status and treatment is a series of gallows humor animated clips in which a large paper moose accidentally steps on and squashes a little creature.
Greg’s only friend is Earl, a congenial African American—but note that he does not call him “a friend,” but a “coworker.” Earl lives in a rough neighborhood, and so he has dubious prospects of ever going with his coworker to college. (His only family member we see is a slightly older dude—a brother? — always hanging out on the porch.) The coworkers spend most of their time together at Greg’s house where his father and mother welcome Earl. He and Greg, friends since kindergarten, have worked together to produce 42 parodies of classic movies using Greg’s 16 mm camera, paper puppets and homemade props.
We are given glimpses of several of their spoofs, thus showing what creative guys they are. The titles include A Sockwork Orange; 2:48 p.m. Cowboy; Eyes Wide Butts, The 400 Bros (Greg has a poster of Truffaut’s original displayed in his room); Senior Citizen Kane; Breathe Less. Their version of the classic Don’t Look Now is renamed Don’t Look Now Because a Creepy Ass Dwarf Is About To Kill You!! Damn!! (There are also spoofs of a popular film or two, such as Jurassic Skate Park.)
Their interest in foreign and art house films has been fostered by Dad (Nick Offerman), a world traveler who loves cerebral films. Also at school, to get away from the student cafeteria, which he calls “The Gaza Strip” because of its turf wars, he and Earl usually eat lunch in the office of their history teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). The latter is a manifestation of what must be a liberal school policy, as he sports tattoos and teaches in an unorthodox way. There is usually a foreign film on his computer monitor—we see several scenes from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God—so at school as well as at home, the pair are exposed to a host of sophisticated films.
Greg’s life takes an unexpected turn when Mom (Connie Britton) practically forces him to contact Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl he had known in Hebrew School who now has leukemia. Even though Rachel is not very welcoming when he telephones her, Mom still insists that he go pay a call on her. Rachel resists his presence, but when he levels with her that he is there because his mother will not let him alone until he comes, she relents somewhat. There are awkward silences as they sit apart in her room, but shy Greg can be very funny at times. The depressed girl finds herself drawn out by his humorous antics, and more visits follow their first encounter. Rachel’s Mom (Molly Shannon) drinks too much, but is pleased that her ailing daughter has found a friend to stand by her. Eventually, of course, Earl also meets Rachel.
As the girl’s treatments increase in their intensity, the scene often shifts back and forth from her room to the hospital. Of course, her hair goes, and her spirit sags, she now thinking that she is ugly. One of her friends at school approaches Greg to ask, no, demand, that they make a film for Rachel. Although no one else but the two had hitherto seen their films, Greg had shared some with Rachel, who apparently had told the friend. Weeks go by, and no film. The friend keeps after Greg, and eventually he & Earl try to come up with ideas, but the fact that their prime audience might be dying—Greg says a couple of times during his narration that she survives—stymies them, until…
Greg has been a good student at school, despite his opinion of it. He has already received a letter admitting him to a prestigious university. However, the time he spends with Rachel and trying with Earl to come up with a movie they feel appropriate for her leaves no time for studies. His grades plummet, and the university admissions office, apparently notified of the decline, sends him a second letter saying that they have now decided to withdraw their offer of admission.
Mom gives him the huge volume of college listings for him to look for an alternative. When he shares this with Rachel, we cannot but help wonder what she must be thinking concerning her own bleak future, one that precludes college. That volume later will contain a surprise that will help Greg deal with his emotions and outlook on life. Also an observation by Mr. McCarthy comes to mean a lot to Greg, the teacher talking about the mysteries of a human that are so profound and deep that we keep learning about a loved one even after they are gone. This turns out to be the case for the teenager, the film’s conclusion being one of the most memorable and moving of any film that I have seen.
It is telling that the worldview of both the filmmakers and the teenagers is secular. Though Greg’s and Rachel’s families are Jewish, no one speaks of God or offers a prayer for Rachel. We are shown no rabbi visiting in her home or chaplain at the hospital praying for her. Neither the girl nor best friend seem to talk about mortality and death, nor of God or any kind of after life. There is an “after life” in this film, but not in any religious sense. This after life takes place when Greg visits Rachel’s room and finds several surprises among her books, including the hefty college information book.
The film provides faith groups, especially youth, a golden opportunity to talk about friendship and death. The filmmakers refuse to go the usual Hollywood rout of having the pair rip off their clothes and writhe in ecstasy on her bed, as music wells up celebrating True Love. (We almost expect this after several weeks and then a semester go by—that it doesn’t happen adds to my admiration of both the writer and the director!) Thus leaders need not worry about having to explain/warn parents about the film’s content. The filmmakers are not interested in titillating us, but instead want to explore three young people striving to cope in a world of school classes, relationships, senior proms, caring (and thus seemingly pushy at times) parents, and the search for a suitable college interrupted by illness and…
I hope this is not one of those worthy films that becomes lost amidst the hype of summer blockbusters. Remember the wonderful Short Term12? Unless you have been a steady VP reader, probably not. Both films are fine accounts of teenagers under stress, told without any trace of the maudlin. If you love films, you owe it to yourself to see both.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.