To tell you whether a film about a terminally ill character is happy or sad is seemingly to spoil the ending. This film, however, earns both tears and laughs in a perfect balancing act between the funny and the serious, that both emotions will occur even prior to the film’s conclusion. Visually and narratively speaking, it is not your typical coming of age or illness melodrama. Instead, the quirky nature of this comedy-drama creates a unique story that completely avoids clichéd pitfalls and makes for memorable and impactful viewing.
The film follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a senior at a Pittsburgh high school as he is pushed, by his parents, into befriending his school acquaintance, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with Leukemia. The film focuses on their subsequent relationship as well as also detailing Greg’s filmmaking exploits with his ‘co-worker’ (friend), Earl (RJ Cyler II). These two strands entwine to create a task for Greg: to make a film for Rachel. However, the film’s main focus remains centred around the growing friendship between the characters (a relationship that remains purely platonic, a welcome change), and how they enrich each others’ lives.
The film’s format is unusual. The narration from Greg is intermittent, providing an insight into his thoughts, but also allowing him, as a film fanatic, to make meta comments regarding the film itself. There are also chapter headings that grace the screen, providing humour as well as a better idea of how Greg views the events in the story, for, as the title suggests, this is Greg’s story, so these features help the audience to more fully understand and appreciate his perspective.
Each of the young actors breathes life to their titular characters, producing depth and a likeability without shying away from their characters’ flaws. Cooke does not allow Rachel to be defined purely by her illness, playing her with such grounded authenticity; it elicits earned empathy as opposed to instinctive pity. Greg’s awkwardness is evident but not overpowering in Mann’s portrayal, who manages to bring a likeability to Greg but without shying away from his flaws. Cyler brings a sense of reality and depth to Earl, played with subtlety to great effect. One of the key elements of the film is the terrific chemistry between the three leads, which adds to the film’s winning feel of authenticity.
The visuals of the film are also a standout feature. The cinematography (by Chung-hoon Chung) is quirky yet beautiful, using lots of quick pans and unusual angles that add to the events, rather than distract from them. The untypical camera placement serves to enhance the characters’ relationships and feelings in each scene, making it a key aspect in piecing together the bigger picture. Many scenes are shot in long takes, which reinforces the feeling of reality that is present throughout the film. Nothing feels fabricated; it all feels genuine, serving to increase the film’s impact on the audience.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction is heartfelt and sincere, creating an intimate film that envelopes its viewers, captivating them in the story. The emotional moments hit hard, but the comic ones succeed too, a balancing act he executes all without ever venturing into mawkish territory.
The result is a unique gem: a film of profound emotion, quirky hilarity and heartfelt charm.