The clue is right there in the title: The most important element of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not the young woman with leukemia. Nor is it sidekick Earl, even though his enigmatic character presents quite a few interesting possibilities. No, the focus is “Me,” floppy-haired teen narrator Greg, whose social awkwardness is presented as the real crux of this tragicomedy.
Adapted by Jesse Andrews, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl arrives with a bit of cinematic fanfare: It won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Understanding why is not hard. The movie, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (most notable for directing episodes of American Horror Story and Glee), is full of the quirky touches Sundance audiences admire: amusing flights of fancy involving animation; offbeat characters like Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation), a professor who wanders around in a robe slurping down bizarre food; cute title cards before each major scene (“The Part Where I Meet a Dying Girl,” “Day 1 of Doomed Friendship”). There’s plenty to like here, but the movie focuses on the least interesting person on the screen, a curious choice considering we’re talking life and death.
Greg (Thomas Mann of Project X) is a smart if unassuming senior in Pittsburgh, where he negotiates the tribal pathways of high school by being a casual friend to kids from every clique without bonding with any of them. The one exception is Earl (RJ Cyler) from the tough part of town (translation: he’s African American). Greg and Earl have known each other since they were little kids. They have made a series of short movie parodies based on the classics they love (A Clockwork Orange becomes A Sockwork Orange, acted out via gym socks with googly eyes as Droogs, for example). But Greg still refers to Earl as his co-worker, unable to call him a “friend” because — well, because that’s the movie’s construct. Greg is afraid to have friends.
When his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with the girl, even though they’ve never been particular friends. Why is never fully explained, although supposedly Greg’s mom is friends with Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon, stuck in an awful, borderline predatory older-woman part and making the worst of it). Greg’s oddball sense of humor, his mother says, is just what Rachel needs. So the two become friends, as we see via montage. But when Greg and Earl try to make a movie for Rachel, whose health begins to falter, things start to fall apart.
The film founders at that point, all its carefully constructed eccentricity not enough to overcome the unnerving feeling that we’re wasting time with the wrong person. We learn almost nothing about Rachel beyond her illness until the film is almost over; she exists as a catalyst for Greg to solve his social anxiety. The laconic Earl is another wasted opportunity: The moments in which he talks to Rachel are among the film’s most simple and moving, but he’s relegated to the outskirts of Greg’s preoccupations (Earl also has an older brother who may as well be called Stereotype, since all he does is sit around smoking and shouting threats, pit bull by his side). Even Greg’s tattooed and charismatic history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is more interesting than the self-absorbed kid we’re supposed to care about.
The obvious comparison is the film adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the tearjerker about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. That movie is an unabashed melodrama that aims straight for the tear ducts. Why then does it feel more authentic than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? Maybe because the focus is in the right place, the emotions are tangible enough to grapple with, and we’re not asked to grieve for a boy with his whole life ahead of him.
Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cook, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal.
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Screenwriter: Jesse Andrews. Based on his novel.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 105 minutes. Sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements. Playing at area theaters.