Montclair Film Festival Highlights Day 9: Top Spin, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl

topspin

Top Spin

The most notable part of this documentary on young Olympic ping-pong hopefuls in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games was not the incredible facility of the players—though, thanks to excellent slow-motion photography, that part was fun to watch. Most fascinating was the way in which co-directors Sara Newens and Mina T. Son rendered the humanity of her three stars—all high school students under the age of eighteen—and made us cheerleaders in their rapid rise through the ranks of national competitive play. In the tenser scenes near the end the audience was palpably on edge, and their were audible sighs of relief or groans at exciting moments during some of the later games. But the truly touching—and exceedingly well-filmed—moments were when Newens and Son exposed, with a well-timed shot, the depth of the rivalry between two players, or caught another just as the pressure was beginning to overwhelm him. The editing of this film is three years in the making, and it shows.

MeAndEarlAndTheDyingGirl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Whatever achievements may come to other films at the festival this year, plentiful and wonderful though they may be, will pale in comparison to those of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a staggeringly beautiful, funny, poignant, sad, and nearly perfect movie that will stand as a significant contribution to twenty-first century cinema. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (adapting his novel) have conjured a world of simultaneous delicious visual fancy and heartbreaking emotional realism. It is certainly among the best and most accurate of the high-school films I’ve seen. Thomas Mann gives a completely fully realized performance (of which I’m sure the Oscars, snobs that they are, will refuse to take note) as a self-hating loner who, along with his filmmaking partner and best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler, snappily funny), falls in with Rachel (the astonishing Olivia Cooke), a social nonentity who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. The treatment of the story is so exquisite, and the Wes Anderson-style camera movement and art direction so detailed and professional, that you would never know this is only Gomez-Rejon’s second feature. Expect to hear buzz about this festival centerpiece for the remainder of MFF, but people will be talking about it as a standard-bearer for a new kind of film for decades to come.

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