It's only getting an official release here this week, but "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is already polarizing moviegoers. For some audiences — probably the majority — this tale of a sardonic teen misfit and his friendship with a sick classmate will play as a delightful, emotionally powerful independent charmer, with style to burn and a goofy but wounded heart. Not for nothing did it win both jury and audience awards at this year's Sundance.
For others, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's adaptation of Jesse Andrews's 2012 young adult novel seems to be a teeth-gritting exercise in faux-indie hipsterism, a forced march of cleverness that uses a secondary character with leukemia to illuminate the sensitivity of its feckless high school hero. Forget audience awards; I know one person who flipped the bird at the screen when the end credits rolled.
Me, I'm somewhere in the middle, which I realize is no help whatsoever. I've seen "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" twice, once at Sundance and again last week, and both times I found myself relishing the skill of the cast and laughing at the sharply turned dialogue while wincing at the self-consciousness of the storytelling and the self-congratulatory pop-culture references, the way certain characters play to racial and social assumptions of audiences who should know better, and the general air of bright, callow egocentricity.
In other words, this movie isn't just about an adolescent boy — it pretty much is an adolescent boy.
At the center (and how) is Greg, a gawky, glum high school chatterbox whose cynical voice-over narration breaks the fourth wall early and often. He's played by Thomas Mann, a likable Eeyore of an actor who makes you wonder if Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" finally got his own movie. His father (Nick Offerman, who's cornering the market on these things) is a stay-at-home tenured sociology professor with a taste for kimonos, cats, and wacky vegan dishes; his mother (Connie Britton) — the "LeBron James of nagging" — badgers Greg to befriend neighbor and fellow senior Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been given a probably terminal diagnosis. She's understandably wary, but Greg puts her at ease. "I'm not here because I pity you," he says. "I'm here because my Mom is making me."
From there we're off on a growing friendship that Greg's voice-over firmly tells us will not get romantic — not like a movie — while the hero stalls college applications and deals with the comic traumas of high school. Greg's best friend or "co-worker," Earl (RJ Cyler), is a black kid from a tough neighborhood who talks like Bubba Blue in "Forrest Gump" and with whom the hero makes amusingly stupid 16mm parodies of film classics: "A Sockwork Orange," "My Dinner With Andre the Giant," "Death in Tennis."
These get a big laugh from audiences in the know; such scenes, along with ones in which Greg and his friends riffle through the DVD bins at a hip local video store, are meant to prove the hero's eccentric/cool cultural bona fides. But the pileup of references — of film posters and LaserDisc covers and plastic record-bin dividers — feels insular and smug. So does the wall-to-wall soundtrack of early Brian Eno pop songs, which even for someone who loves that music seems a little off base. (The fine modern classical composer Nico Muhly wrote the incidental score.) Of course there are plenty of young people out there with similar tastes and I appreciate that this movie may send others out to investigate. But "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" isn't so much about a real teenager as it is about the teenager that a director in his 40s and a novelist-screenwriter in his 30s wish they had been.
About that dying girl. The scenes in which Greg and Rachel hang out in her bedroom and make each other laugh are by far the best in the movie, partly because they're well-written, well played, and simply presented, and partly because Cooke makes Rachel someone you actually want to spend time with. (I wish I could say the same about Molly Shannon as Rachel's mother, a sketch-comedy character with an ever-present wine glass.)
It's doubly frustrating, then, that "Me and Earl" isn't interested in her as more than a spur to the hero's coming of age. Rachel is rather cruelly abandoned in the film's second half, while Earl starts acting more and more like the Magical Black Friend who says wise things to get the hero off his butt. The movie is earnest to a fault, and it works the charm and heartbreak hard; you'll have plenty of company if you go along. But a better, more honest film might have been called "Earl and the Dying Girl," while this one should just have been titled "Me."