Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and features Jesse Andrews adapting his own novel. It stars Thomas Mann as Greg, the Me of the title, as he details the self-proclaimed “Doomed Friendship” he develops with the cancer-ridden Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Greg is in his last year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb, where he plays it cool with all of the different cliques, obsesses about movies from the Criterion Collection and hangs with his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cryler), the Earl of the title. The son of quirky parents (played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman), Greg is lectured into hanging out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate with leukemia who he only knows in passing.
Despite being there for less than ideal reasons, Greg strikes a chord with Rachel. Some of it his own self-deprecation. Some of it his willingness to – mostly – talk to her as a person that is more than the Dying Girl.
The movie is a strange one, fumbling here, amusing there. It’s a jumble of ideas, playfulness and cloying sentimentality that doesn’t congeal into a good film, even if it is rarely a dull one. Part of this is the heightened reality of it all, which is too clever by half. With a framing device that centers on Greg writing a later-to-be revealed designation, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews run with the tropes of high school a tad hard, making a big thing about how Goths do this and Theatre Geeks do that. Beautiful Girls are a type and not a human. It’s one of many distractions that are meant to be playful but end up undercutting the emotions. The maneuver also brings to light the shallowness of the characters.
Greg himself is somewhat fleshed out, at least enough that his rambling personality clicks. The passion for movies is explained (dear ol’ dad loves foreign stuff) and plays into his goofy sensibilities. Along with Earl, Greg makes a plethora of semi-spoofs that call to mind Be Kind Rewind. The movies themselves are, as they’re meant to be, rather bad. The names can be a hoot though, with “2:48 Cowboy” being a particularly inspired by of goofiness. Still there are details that don’t ring true about Greg. His propensity to refer to Earl as a “co-worker” is far-fetched, a bit of humility that is inauthentic.
Then there is Greg’s bond with Rachel. Mann and Cooke have a sweet chemistry, ribbing on one another engagingly and sharing the kind of smiles one roots to become more. Watching them grow comfortable with one another is a treat. As the movie repeatedly states, however, this isn’t a movie where the nice kid falls in love with the one on death’s door. While there is something to be commended about that, it too feels false. Greg and Rachel don’t have to end up together or have a fake wedding. They do have a significant connection, are each single and spend countless hours in one another’s company sharing intimate details. That one doesn’t pine for the other and eventually spill out his or her guttural longings is skipping past teenage emotions for the sake of it and belying what’s underneath.
Rachel isn’t exactly that developed. She is the point of platonic affection after all. Earl is worse; straight-faced with a predilection for talking about “Titties.” This crushes the dramatic stabs Dying Girl attempts in the back-half of the movie, especially one between Greg and Earl.
The movie’s problems come from a seemingly good place. This is filmmaking that is attempting a wry, slightly different approach to the world of high school and the tropes of the kid with cancer drama. That it succumbs to many of the same clichés and troubles isn’t a shock considering the sources. In adapting his own book, Andrews tries to cram the kind of narration and wit that tends to work better in long-form then condensed to under two-hours. Gomez-Rejon throws all sorts of visual concepts into the pot, with clay-mation and other low-key effects popping up through out. It’s an ambitious effort, aided by a beautiful haze by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Stoker, Oldboy) and it will undoubtedly hit a certain demo right in the heart. It will for now at least.