Even from the red carpet Jesse Andrews can’t believe his luck.
“It’s really a big surprise,” says Andrews, at the Pittsburgh premiere of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the indie movie hit of the summer, based on his 2012 novel of the same name.
“For a while I kind of figured maybe I wasn’t even going to get a novel published,” the Point Breeze native admits.
Andrews wrote the screenplay for the movie which centers around high school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend a classmate, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), who was diagnosed with leukemia. Greg and his friend, Earl (Ronald Cyler), spend their free time filming private, homemade parodies of classic works of cinema, but once their hobby is exposed the pair are roped into filming a movie for Rachel.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Glee, American Horror Story), the film was shot in and around Pittsburgh in 2014.
Gomez-Rejon said that Pittsburgh slowly revealed itself to him as he began to scout the location, yet he didn’t want to portray a postcard version of the city.
“I wanted to shoot it in a way as if you were living in it, where it wasn’t super pretty and idealized, but you could really feel the surroundings and how they defined the characters.”
True to his word, in the film there are no sweeping panoramas of downtown from Mt. Washington or breathtaking reveals of the city from the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Instead, there are recurring views of the Mon Valley Works from Braddock, and Polish Hill’s Brereton Street.
More than just a backdrop, the film version of Pittsburgh is steeped in Andrews’ memories of home. Greg’s bedroom in the film is the very same Point Breeze bedroom that Andrews grew up in, and a large chunk of the movie takes place within his alma mater, Schenley High School. (There was a large, sustained applause from the crowd at the premiere when the beloved, now-shuttered school first appeared.)
“It gives it this real lived-in quality,” says lead actor Mann. “It gives it this whole life that you couldn’t achieve if you were just throwing locations together. Pittsburgh is so beautiful and has such a specific aesthetic to it. I feel like it’s another character in the film.”
While the movie certainly resonated with the partisan, hometown crowd, that was to be expected. What was not necessarily expected was the praise from elsewhere. The film earned both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 31st Sundance Film Festival, and rave reviews from critics nationwide. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal called it “brilliantly funny, casually profound and deeply affecting,” while Richard Roeper flat-out deemed it “one of the best films of 2015.”
Boiled to its essence, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a coming-of-age tale that will leave you crying from both laughter and sorrow. It’s no wonder the film resonates well beyond these three rivers.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens to wide release in Pittsburgh June 26 at The Manor Squirrel Hill and the North Hills Cinemark.