Two stories of life, love and loss that couldn’t be more different

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ (left) and ‘Testament to Youth’

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,’ starring Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Rated: PG-13

The big winner and fan favorite at Sundance this year was this film. Playing in Houston theaters right now, it is certainly worth a look. And while I didn’t always love it, I did love its point of view.

Thomas Mann stars as Greg, an introverted high school teen who has learned how to get through those torturous years by flying under the radar of most of his classmates. He spends most of his spare time making mini-movies that riff on their more famous counterparts — part of his sly genius. His only real friend, whom he calls “a co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), and both are possessed of that blasé attitude that’s going grease the path to graduation without making any enemies.

At the insistence of his mother (Connie Britton), Greg is forced out of his reverie and his room to visit a fellow classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. He balks and whines, but mom wins out, and he spends an awkward hour in Rachel’s room trying to make her laugh. His success encourages a friendship and soon the two — plus Earl — are inseparable.

This is a coming-of-age story for the tragically hip. All the teen characters are possessed with mordant senses of humor and a facileness that cannot be duplicated in any other age group. But thankfully, it lacks the overall superficiality that dogs many of these kinds of movies. There is depth here with memorable characters and sharp yet thoughtful dialog in a story that will pull at you.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with a calm subtlety and scripted by the author of the same book, Jesse Andrews, this is one of those movies that lingers with you after you leave the theater.

 

‘Testament to Youth,’ starring: Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington

Directed by: James Kent

Rated: PG-13

The life and writings of Vera Brittain, one of England’s most famous pacifists, is largely unknown to American audiences, but this movie may change that. Director James Kent gives her memoir the big screen treatment with a first-rate cast that includes this year’s “it girl,” Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, as Brittain. Fresh from “Ex Machina” and now this, there are three more movies to go this year starring Vikander, who freshly predicted in a recent interview she would be invited to attend the Oscars next year. This movie could do that for her.

Much like her character who impulsively tells an Oxford instructor (Miranda Richardson) that she would “like to be known” someday, Vikander is fast becoming just that, and with good reason. She’s perfect in the part of the restless, strong willed yet naïve young girl who longs to matriculate to Somerville College at Oxford against her parents’ (Dominic West and Emma Watson) wishes. They relent, but soon all are swept up in World War I and Vera’s dear brother Edward (Taron Edgerton) and his friends, including Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), who is now engaged to Vera, enlist and leave the comfortable, bucolic life of privilege they enjoy.

Feeling her studies are a frivolous gesture with a war going on, Vera volunteers as a nurse and makes her way to the front lines in France where Kent employs much graphic detail in his scenes of war and its aftermath. It’s muddy and bloody, leaving Vera as much a casualty as the broken men she tends.

Harington, clean-shaven and shorn, is barely recognizable as the late watch commander in “Game of Thrones.” His untimely departure in the finale a few weeks ago will no doubt free him up to do more feature films and show off his range better than the brooding Jon Snow. This role is a good start, not to mention showing off his leading man looks.

This movie is taken mostly from Brittain’s own writings, which detailed the loss of her beloved brother, Leighton, and two other friends during the war. Employing a flashback technique that begins on Armistice Day and goes back to the starting point of the conflict, it’s easy to see why Brittain became an outspoken opponent of war. Her losses were many, and this is indeed a “testament” to those men. Playing now at the Landmark River Oaks Theater in Houston.

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