Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Runtime: 105 minutes
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl might be THE most Sundance-y/indie/capital-Q "quirky" movie to hit theaters in the past half decade, or even decade. This is not a compliment. It is 105 minutes of the most grating stereotypes of quirky only without the self awareness one would find in a Saturday Night Live skit. The best possible outcome for American independent cinema would be that Earl is the final nail in the coffin for the Quirky Teen Dramedy genre, and not the inspiration for dozens more likeminded films.
Among the biggest issues plaguing Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's debut feature is that the titular Me is, quite simply, one of the worst protagonists in recent memory. Pittsburgh teenager Greg (Thomas Mann) is an awkward film geek with only one real friend. He also has low self-esteem and constantly rejects compliments about everything from his intelligence to his looks. So even though there's a Dying Girl involved, this is very much Greg's story, and that's a terrible, terrible thing. Greg's self-loathing has little basis, and his repeated mentions of his supposed deficiencies eventually sound less like an esteem problem and more like a ploy for unearned praise.
Of course, this means that the only thing that can help Greg change is a QUIRKY girl with some ISSUES. Of course, unlike similar films, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl's issue isn't that she's flighty or avoids serious issues. Instead, she has leukemia. Because, as The Fault in Our Stars showed us last year, nothing gets people going like kids going through first love with a nice side of chemo. In fairness, of all the cliched aspects of Me and Earl, the Dying Girl is actually the most genuine part of the film. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) isn't a brave smiling angel. Instead, she's a no nonsense kid who can cut through bullshit when she sees it. She's also got that wise-beyond-her-years vibe that could have been grating but thanks to Cooke feels totally natural. In essence, she's a more emotionally open version of Daria.
And yet even though Rachel is going through...what was it, oh yeah, LEUKEMIA, she gets sidelined in favor of the insufferable Greg and his BFF Earl (RJ Cyler). Except, y'know, since this whole thing is one big QUIRKY (TM) affair Greg won't refer to Earl as his friend. He's his "co-worker." Now, I know that Homer Simpson is not supposed to be a model citizen, but Me and Earl would have been improved significantly had Mr. Simpson sped by in his car and thrown out a drive-by "NEEEEEEEERRRRRDDD!!!" at Greg, and maybe Earl as well.
Earl's problems are a horse (and person) of a different color. Because we're apparently still in the late 90s, Earl is the Black Best Friend. He lives only a short walk from Greg, but in a "rougher" part of town (can you decode the language?). Earl's purpose is basically to stand there and be a emotional sounding board but he's different because, like, he's not white and that's super nifty, but he doesn't need a personality or agency. Hell, South Park's Token Black character has more dimensions.
But perhaps none of the above would be so troubling (also: infuriating, groan-inducing, etc...) if the script weren't so rotten to the core. Jesse Andrews' adaptation of his own novel is stilted at best. At worst, it's unforgivably manipulative and so forcibly twee that Wes Anderson looks butch by comparison (the film would have benefitted immensely from his touch). As far as heavily contrived dramatic moments go, Me and Earl builds to one that gives the whole of Men, Women, and Children a run for its money. This is also not a good thing.
Gomez-Rejon, an accomplished TV director, at least does his best to inject some energy into Andrews' self-satisfied tale. But the energetic camera work only exacerbates the problems with the script and in Mann's central performance. Greg's self-loathing/thinly-veiled narcissism smother the comedy, and bring hollowness to the drama. Only Cooke is on the right wavelength for her material, but she's often more of an emotional and thematic catalyst than a real character. Rachel deserves to be more than a device to push Greg outside of his comfort zone. But that would require conviction and a willingness to break away from stifling conventions, which Me and Earl and the Poorly Served Dying Girl has precious no time for. Cliches and tropes don't have to be burdens if they're properly managed (and tweaked). Unfortunately, Andrews' story is so in love with sob story expectations that there's never room for Me and Earl to do anything but drown in its own cloying artifice.