Verdict: An oddball, funny and ultimately moving Gen Y coming-of-age tale that affirms the transformative power of art and embracing one’s humanity.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is an oddball outsider in his last year of high school. His armour is irony, his survival strategy at school staying under the radar. He spends his spare time making parodies of famous films with his buddy since childhood, Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he refers to as his “co-worker” (gotta keep that distance). Their no-budget films are as hokey and amateurish as might be expected, but the titles suggest a budding comedic talent: for example, Senior Citizen Cane and 2:48PM Cowboy. When Greg’s mother hears that one of his high school peers, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has just been diagnosed with cancer, she insists that he befriend her. Talk about chucking an intimacy-phobic in the deep end!
It’s a bit of a highwire act without a net, this setup. The tone is decidedly humorous and of the smartarse cynical Gen Y variety. That shouldn’t mix well with teen cancer and indeed, it’s touch and go initially, as is Greg’s rather writerly authorial voiceover narrative intrusions that splice the story of his time with Rachel, which is otherwise played out conventionally. Every so often, Greg the narrator messes with the viewer, announcing at one point, for example, that this is not a love story, and at another giving the comforting assurance that Rachel doesn’t die. As unlikely as humour, cancer and meta stuffo are as a combo, before long you’re in there and along for the ride, wherever the hell it takes you. It’s just a matter of getting used to the unusual brew and mode of serving it.
Fortunately, Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke are fine young actors who manage their roles extremely well, assisted by a deftly written screenplay, and the disparate elements cohere. Even more impressive, the humour is maintained against the odds to the point at which Rachel’s deteriorating condition demands a change of tone. This is effected by degrees, mirroring Greg’s realisation that his defensive wit and refusal to take anything seriously cannot protect him from the confronting reality before him. He has found something real and true with Rachel, which he must find a way to articulate meaningfully to her. He determines to make a film for her, and in so doing digs deep, properly honours his artistic talent for the first time, and creates something special. In return, he discovers a gift from Rachel that has him placing value on himself and his talent, and sets him on a career course.
What starts as an oddball Gen Y comedy ends as a moving coming-of-age tale and an affirmation of the transformative power of art (in this case, film) and of embracing, rather than denying, one’s humanity. That’s quite a journey – and if it tips over into sentimentality towards the end, that’s but a minor glitch that is quickly redeemed with some parting black humour. Different, entertaining and moving.
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