Weaned on ludicrous white-male teen fantasies like Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the whole John Hughes oeuvre, really), even as an adult I have to admit to a partiality toward movies in which the teen heroes live in a world gloriously beyond the attention of parents who bear more than a passing resemblance to police and other authority figures. Maybe it’s just a curiosity with how white folks tend to be so hands-off with their kids.
We’ve reached an escalation, it seems, when it comes to such freedom and the costs incurred by teens. Kids today have advanced so far beyond throwing a little house party that gets a bit wild; now teens fall in love with pale day-walking vampires and shirtless werewolves, wander around dystopian virtual dreamscapes killing each other or seek to provide psychological support to terminally ill love interests. It sure is tough being a reel/real young adult character in the modern world.
Fortunately there are role models everywhere. Take Thomas Mann, for instance. Mann first captured attention with Project X, one of those teen-throwing-a-party-while-his-parents-are-out-of-town flicks that made a splash by extending the premise to truly epic extremes. Far beyond the notion of a few extra people, an illegal keg or two and the destruction of a family heirloom or three, Project X resulted in the kind of raucous disaster that trends on social media, winds up as a talking point on late-night television shows and contributes to the national debt when all is said and done.
And Mann sold each stage of the escalation, which recalled the impossible-to-ignore thrill that comes from borrowing money from a drug-dealing mobster to double down on an ephemeral sure-thing that everyone knows is the stuff of a fever dream about to go horribly wrong. Somehow Mann made us believe that it was worth taking the chance. He came across like a contemporary version of Cameron (Alan Ruck) from Ferris Bueller, with the focus on him rather than the hip-beyond-his-years fourth-wall-breaker, although stylistically the constant camera documentation allows for an approximation of that vibe. And it works because Mann’s character transforms from Cameron into a refracted version of Ferris right before our eyes.
“On Project X, I was a kid,” Mann says of his breakout role. “I was 18 years old when I was cast and had just moved out to L.A. And so, in a way, I was coming of age on that movie. I wasn’t totally an actor yet. I was discovering my abilities and trying things.”
Now, he’s venturing down the terminal-disease road that is far more traveled than it used to be. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl pumps the breaks on the tragic end by not hitting Mann’s character Greg with a life-threatening affliction. Instead, he’s just an emotionally stunted guy — it’s a routine ailment, but one that can and will be treated thanks to his interactions with the other characters referenced in the title. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his best friend, a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks who shares Greg’s penchant for watching and making obscure cinema, while the Dying Girl in question, named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), shakes him up, forcing him to crack his insecure shell and venture outside of himself.
There seems to be an earnest importance on taking himself seriously as an actor, placing performance over fame. At first glance, it would be easy to compare Mann to other young men who have skyrocketed into the Hollywood firmament (Matthew Broderick and Tom Cruise back in the day), but those quite different types don’t have an exact match in today’s realm. I’m not even sure he’s following in the footsteps of more recent indie darlings (Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan), making it big by dipping their toes in the blockbuster genre pool. Mann sounds disinterested in trying on a latex bodysuit and a mask or saving dystopian worlds without mussing a hair on his well-groomed head.
Referring back to Project X, Mann explains, “I never thought of it as this really profound creative experience. Nonetheless, it was something I was really passionate about,” he says. “And when Me and Earl came along, I knew it was an opportunity to prove to people that I’m really serious about this and I’m not just coasting along [in order] to be famous or anything. I really care about acting and I want to make important films, and films that resonate with people on some deeper level. Not a lot of roles come along like this one, and I fought as hard as I could to get it.”
Now that’s a real heroic battle — one that Mann will hopefully keep waging. (Now open at Esquire Theatre) Grade: A