When examining the lineup for Sundance Film Festival, it's difficult to discern which film will cause the biggest splash. With just a single logline and one photograph in a pamphlet crowded with over a hundred other films, choosing which films to see at the fest — let alone predicting which movies will receive distribution or awards — is near impossible. Last year it was Oscar-nominated Whiplash, starring J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, that took home the biggest prize. And this year, the big winner (sweeping both the Audience and Grand Jury awards) came in the form of high school drama Me and Earl and The Dying Girl. "It was so overwhelming. We did not expect that reception at all," says Olivia Cooke, who stars alongside Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler in the high school-centric film.
"At Sundance, I started crying as soon as Thomas came on screen," The Bates Motel actress explains. "We had been building up for this moment for so long, and even though I had seen it before Sundance, I was only watching the acne migrate across my face, how my face moves and my lips form sentences — it's all you focus on the first time because it's so bizarre to see yourself."
"It's amazing to look around and see people sobbing when the movie is over," says Mann. There's nothing like the feeling of the lights going down and everyone getting quiet. You know you're about to pop up on screen. It was really emotional."
The critically-acclaimed film centers around high school senior Greg, whose mother forces him to befriend a girl with cancer in his class. The logline may appear morbid, but the film is chalked full of laughs from beginning to end. But this isn't to say the film won't leave you sobbing. " I could never be prepared for what the movie ended up being," Mann says. "It's really nerveracking. These people are going to think what they're going to think."
"We get it, but we don't know if the whole world is going to understand it. You can't be too precious about the way it's perceived," says Cooke. Mann chimes in: "We're at the mercy of the way it's being distributed, the trailers, the posters, it takes on a life of its own. We have to step back and say, 'We did our job.' You can't explain to someone why your movie is good if they didn't like it."
Newcomer RJ Cyler, who plays Thomas' closest friend, couldn't help but tear up — like many members of the Sundance audience — as he watched the narrative unravel. "Seeing it at Sundance it was like, I can't stop crying. I was like 'tilt your head back RJ and think about something funny.' It just really made me emotional."
While plenty of films surrounding cancer exist, Me and Earl approaches the subject with such raw honesty and humor, a quality that attracted the young stars to the film in the first place. "It realistically reminded me of a way I would have dealt with this situation in high school," says Mann. "These characters don't see it as a beautiful, poignant time in their lives. It's too confusing and uncomfortable. Greg doesn't have the emotional dexterity to handle it."
It's a delicate and difficult subject matter to be sure, but what Me and Earl triumphantly teaches is that, "people do carry on living. No one is ever truly gone. And it's really reassuring and it's what I took from the film. You don't just completely vanish," says Cooke, before an appropriately non sequitur interruption from Cyler: "If I die I'd want to come back as a dog or a zebra," he says. "I don't know why. Ever since Madagascar, zebras have really kicked in..."
See Me and Earl and The Dying Girl in theaters Friday, June 12. Watch the trailer below:
Images: Fox Searchlight