“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” looks as out of place among summer releases as Santa Claus at a senior prom. The film remains sadly profound and profoundly sad, yet it holds just enough humor to lighten a weighty subject without trivializing it.
Jesse Andrews, who adapted his novel of the same name, had never written a feature film. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had made just one (“The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) and has spent most of his short career in TV, especially on “American Horror Story.”
Yet they almost perfectly maintain a dry, unsentimental tone in this story of a guy who learns to have confidence in himself (a little, anyhow) while befriending a classmate with leukemia.
This sounds like an “After-School Special,” but it’s neither painfully earnest nor preachy. The filmmakers go well beyond the coming-into-his-own plot so many high school movies use, and they address an important idea: When we define someone by one aspect of a life (in this case, a debilitating illness), we miss all the other things she may be. That’s why Rachel is simply “the dying girl” in the title; nobody but her mother thinks of her as anything else most of the time.
Narrator Greg (Thomas Mann) seems content with near-invisibility in his last year of high school, maintaining contact with each clique while being part of none. He has had one consistent friend since boyhood, an equally deadpan classmate named Earl (RJ Cyler).
Greg refers to Earl as a “co-worker,” because they have spent years making short film parodies, turning “Citizen Kane” into “Senior Citizen Cane” and “Nosferatu” into “Nose Ferret 2.” And of course, if you call someone a friend, you could be hurt if friendship is withdrawn; co-workers merely dissolve a partnership.
Greg’s mom orders him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke in a quiet, star-making performance), whom he once knew in Hebrew school. Greg’s reluctant compliance turns into a deeper attachment, though not in ways you might expect.
The movie dips into stereotype only in depicting Earl, who’s too much of the typical sassy black friend who speaks truth to a white pal. (That’s no fault of Cyler’s; he’s fine.) Earl’s doobie-puffing brother, who chronically half-threatens to set his attack dog on Greg as a joke, smells like even more of a cliché.
Mann has just the right fragility to play Greg, who’s a turtle tucked inside a thin shell. Though Greg’s dipping self-esteem sometimes makes Rachel and us want to shake him, we’ve all known the kind of amiable underachiever who sabotages himself again and again.
Greg makes an unreliable narrator, intentionally misleading us almost from his opening sentences. That keeps us off-guard through the story, inspiring an “Oh, the movie won’t go there” feeling. To the filmmakers’ credit, it usually does.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’
Two high schoolers who spend most of their free time making movie parodies get a new idea after befriending a girl diagnosed with cancer.
A- STARS: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke.
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (sexual content, drug material, language, some thematic elements).