What’s a fair price for an epiphany?
The Sundance favorite “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sabotages itself by answering this question whoppingly, offensively wrong. A dirtier, quirkier take on the same material as last year’s slick cancer romance “The Fault in Our Stars,” this self-consciously clever melodrama equates the value of a girl’s life with a boy’s realization that he should probably go to college. (That sound you just heard was the wistful sigh of a million high-school seniors who wish they had something that juicy to write about for their college-application essay.)
Appropriate to its teenage milieu, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s breakthrough film isn’t unlike spending a couple of hours with an exceptionally witty high-schooler: It’s entertaining as hell, but you can’t help rolling your eyes a little at its self-satisfied pseudo-profundities.
To be fair, it’s easy to see why the film became a festival darling. Based on Jesse Andrews’ novel of the name and adapted by the author himself, “Me and Earl” is both densely packed with droll humor and deft in its emotional manipulations. It aims for and achieves a charming visual whimsy, partly through Claymation sequences involving horses, squirrels and “the hot one from Pussy Riot.”
Headed by a largely unknown but terrific core cast, it feels bracingly contemporary, if occasionally too glib in its cultural references. Its story of a detached dude finally learning to take himself, his life and his relationships seriously is a familiar one, but it’s at least told with goofy flourishes, like a series of puns on cinema classics, that comfortingly reassure us that growing up doesn’t mean having to relinquish the weird, the silly or the absurd.
And yet its premise — that high-school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) learns to embrace the future when it looks like his new leukemia-stricken friend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) won’t have one of her own — is so narcissistically narrated that the story repels with its self-absorption. (Unfortunately, the film celebrates, rather than scrutinizes, Greg’s self-centeredness.)
An amiable loner except for his lifelong pal Earl (R.J. Cyler), Greg is badgered into hanging out with a just-diagnosed Rachel, whom he barely knows, by his bossy mom (Connie Britton). Their first meeting goes about as well as you’d expect from two teenagers forced into conversation; they’re too afraid to make eye contact, and Greg hilariously jokes about touching himself too much. (One of the film’s better observations about adolescence is that teenagers are always terrified that they’re a lot more awkward than they actually are.)
Greg and Rachel quickly establish an easy rapport — a development aided by the fact that the sweet, thoughtful girl has nothing else to do but become her new friend’s steadfast admirer. (Apparently the affection runs in the family; Rachel’s inappropriately flirty mom, played by a game Molly Shannon, also can’t get enough of her daughter’s new friend.)
Earl tells Rachel about the dozens of intentionally bad homages to movie masterpieces he and Greg have made together, and so we’re treated to glimpses of “The Seven Seals,” “Breathe Less” and “A Sockwork Orange,” all adorably dumb. After learning of the duo’s films, Rachel’s intimidatingly attractive friend Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) asks Greg to make a movie for the ill girl. He doesn’t exactly agree to do it, but as Rachel gets sicker, he feels increasingly obligated to make something that’s heartfelt and worthy and special. Of course, that’s easier requested than done.
Despite its lumpen one-sidedness, Greg and Rachel’s blossoming friendship — strictly platonic — is believable and affecting, particularly when they’re just riffing on things to amuse each other in her bedroom. (They bond over how best to avoid annoying well-wishers: Act “subhuman” or just plain dead.)
But the film’s tight focus on Greg’s eventual need to budge from his comfort zone comes at the expense of Rachel’s credibility as a character. She makes a momentous decision that ultimately renders her illness a cheap plot device for Greg’s maturation and the specter of death into mere college-essay fodder. If there’s a lesson the script’s peddling, it’s to answer when opportunism knocks. The better epiphany would have been that cluttering up a film with quips and visual gags and unusual camera angles can only go so far in covering up a cloying, emotionally hollow core.