The dying teen film — last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars” being a prime example — typically wrings romance from the weepy nexus of young love and early death.
The Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” takes a different approach, eschewing tearful swooning and emphasizing a snarky (almost too snarky) humor.
Oh, it’ll have you groping for a tissue toward the end, but it’s much more devious than its filmic brethren about getting us there.
The protagonist and narrator of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s debut feature is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who, like many a smart dweeb before him, employs post-modern irony to shield himself from adolescence’s slings and arrows.
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Greg oozes weary contempt for the inanities of teen and adult society (the latter represented by his touchy-feely parents played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman). He has navigated the shark-infested waters of a big-city school by becoming a human chameleon, ingratiating himself with various youthful castes. Everyone thinks he’s part of their club, but nobody really knows him.
Perhaps not even Earl (RJ Cyler), Greg’s best friend since elementary school. They’re an odd couple: the nerdy white guy and an ultra cool black kid.
Greg and Earl are fans of art house movies — we can’t be sure if they really like highbrow films or are just determined to set themselves apart from their mass-consuming peers — and devote their spare time to making short movies parodying cinema classics.
These goofy amateur remakes have clever names (“Grumpy Cul-De-Sacs” is the boys’ take on “Mean Streets”; “MonoRash” spoofs Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”; “Senior Citizen Kane” and “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” speak for themselves), and they’re fun in a so-bad-they’re-good way. (Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, adapted from his novel, references Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” with a high school hero who stages theatrical adaptations of his favorite films.)
Greg’s too-hip-to-be-bothered facade gets shaken up though, when his mother insists he pay a visit to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia.
Neither Greg nor Rachel has illusions about why he shows up at her door. It’s mom-mandated community service, and since Rachel shares some of Greg’s suspicions about conventional sentimentality and socially appropriate behavior, she makes no demands on her new friend (although Rachel’s needy single mom — Molly Shannon with endlessly replenished glass of white wine — is pathetically grateful for her daughter’s gentleman caller).
One reason Greg keeps coming back, though he’d never admit it, is that Rachel has his number. She knows the teenage fear of putting oneself on the emotional line and drawing back a stump; she recognizes in Greg and Earl fellow commitment phobes.
So they don’t talk about illness or dying, except for the occasional bitter joke, and devote their senior year to hanging out and just getting on. At least until grim reality won’t allow them to sidestep the elephant in the room.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is about how its characters take the leap to face their fears and open up their tamped-down emotions. But the film so effortlessly diverts our attention with laughs and little subplots that we don’t see the big reveal coming. When it finally lands, it leaves few dry eyes.
Not everything about “Me and Earl” works. It takes a while to get past the inherent self-indulgence of Greg’s self-imposed emotional isolation. The humor occasionally tries too hard: The movie is like a smart teen hoping to impress the grown-ups with his comic erudition and overstating his case.
But the film and the performers grow on us (Cyler’s low-key performance is particularly effective at mining the intense feelings beneath Earl’s too-cool exterior), some of the jokes are spot-on (Mann’s Greg does a world-class Werner Herzog impression) and the production values are solid (why haven’t more filmmakers employed the deep music catalog of Brian Eno?).
It all ends with a good, guilt-free cry.
(At Glenwood Arts, Studio 28 and Tivoli.)
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:44