Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a nasty gimmick, a coming of age comedy that bears little semblance to actual human behavior. Everything about it, including its style and characters, is an affectation. There are references for film nerds, including nods to Werner Herzog and David Lynch, as if screenwriter Jesse Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon think name-dropping can compensate for a lack of curiosity about their characters, or how they think. Andrews tries to hide his cynicism with cancer, a favorite topic in recent young adult fiction, which only highlights the dearth of his imagination. This is the sort of movie where voiceover has to teach its lesson to the audience – I mean that literally – since there would be no depth otherwise.
The first fifteen minutes are aggressively stylized. Gomez-Rejon’s camera is full of sudden zooms, abrupt pans, and bizarre lens changes. The effect is energetic, yet it does not put us in the mindset of Greg (Thomas Mann), who plays the titular “Me.” Greg is a high school senior, and his existence is a master class in teenage ennui. He sees school as a minefield of social cliques – the anthropological study of which borrows from better, funnier high school films – and instead of picking one he opts to hang out with his friend/“colleague” Earl (RJ Cyler) and his history teacher (Jon Bernthal). One day Greg’s bleeding heart Mom (Connie Britton) tells him he has visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) because she has leukemia. He shows up at her house, mostly against his will, and comes to enjoy his time with her. As Rachel gets sicker, Greg must contend with his feelings since an essential part of friendship means giving a damn. He resents these feelings, of course, to the point where he alienates himself from his school and family.
The major conceit in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that Greg and Earl are movie nerds. They like art films and documentaries, mostly from the 1970s, except Andrews never gives us a clear explanation why. There are scenes where we watch Greg watch Burden of Dreams, the documentary about how Herzog and Klaus Kinski made Fitzcarraldo, and the script treats the hobby as a mere quirk. Greg and Earl make twee parodies of the movies they love, and an ongoing film project with Rachel is Andrews’ attempt at a plot (Greg steals Errol Morris’ “interrotron” concept). The problem with this approach is that it’s not a means for anything deeper, and merely exists for its own sake. I should note there is nothing wrong with stylized coming of age films. The Spectacular Now and 500 Days of Summer have similar tricks, except they have a specific purpose (i.e. highlighting the flaws of their heroes). Nothing about Gomez-Rejon filmmaking is about Greg, what he’s feeling. As style for its own sake, this is merely a commercial for wannabe cinephiles.
Andrews uses every screenwriting trick he can think of, including voiceovers and self-aware title cards, yet the quieter, actor-driven moments are the only times where the film has any impact. Britton and Nick Offerman, who play Greg’s dad, are intriguing because their flaws sort of inform Greg’s bizarre personality. Bernthal takes the wise teacher archetype and turns it on his head (he gets surprising mileage from his character’s neck tattoos). And as Rachel, Cooke never shies away from the overwhelming power of leukemia, so her funny lines land with melancholy. Still, the film’s best performance is from Cyler, who plays Earl. He has natural charisma and deadpan delivery, even if his character is mired in stereotypes, so Earl is the closest thing this film gets to a heart.
It is probably unfair to fault Mann, although he anchors the movie, since Greg amounts to a collection of disconnected whimsy. Instead, the fundamental miscalculation is to keep the story resolutely from Greg’s perspective. It would be more interesting to see how a sick girl welcomes an annoying boy into his life, or how a decent guy deals with a friend who cannot stand the idea of friendship. What we’re stuck with, however, is a story of how a sullen jerk comes to appreciate life lessons from someone else’s life-threatening disease. You know the old cliché about how so many new creative writing students submit a story about their dead grandmother or whatever? This is the Sundance equivalent.