- Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler
"I don’t know how to tell this story," says the voice opening Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, before preceding to do just that quite ably. The quirky coming-of-age, coming-to-terms-with-death teen dramedy unfolds via a collection of intertitles, animated bits, films-within-the-film and straightforward narrative exposition.
The film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from a screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own young-adult novel), charts the senior year of Greg (Thomas Mann), the narrator of the opening. Greg enjoys a relatively placid existence, staying under the radar at high school and, with his best bud, Earl (RJ Cyler), making goofy parody films of arthouse classics ("My Dinner With Andre the Giant," "Death in Tennis," "A Sockwork Orange"). He even gets along with his mom and dad (portrayed by everybody’s favorite TV parents, Connie Britton and Nick Offerman).
Then, Greg gets an order from his mom to hang out with a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has leukemia. Or as Greg puts it: "Day One of Doomed Friendship." Fortunately, it’s not, as Greg explains, "a touching romantic story," and what develops is that rarer bird among teen films: a friendship.
Me and Earl is often refreshingly off-beat, though not entirely free of the genre’s tropes (high school cliques, guys oogling girls, the adorable sweet guy who is blind to his own charms). And at times, the film suffers from too much "Me," as the underdeveloped Earl and Dying Girl risk becoming plot devices to propel Greg’s development. There is a course correction in the last reel which manages to find a satisfying wrap-up for all parties. But nonetheless, this is mostly a story about Greg, which is frustrating, since his two friends appear to have more complex and complicated, and hence more interesting, stories.
Still, Me and Earl was a big hit at Sundance, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience awards, and should fare well in Pittsburgh, where it is set and was filmed. Greg and his buddies attend Schenley High School, which plays itself here and that should make alums of the now-shuttered school wistful.
The young actors are good, handling the multi-tasking asked of them: Be awkward, deadpan funny, sullen, terrified, speechless, charming. (Mann and Cooke have a scene together where their relationship careens from good to bad in a matter of minutes, and it’s a single camera shot.)
Me and Earl strives to be funny about serious topics — from survivable miseries like adolescence and college applications to heart-busters like untimely death — while still acknowledging their gravity, and it mostly succeeds. You will chuckle frequently, but packing a hankie is still a good idea.