Touching and wise, cute and occasionally cloying, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a dramedy that taps into both real teen angst and behavior, and our fantasies of what we hope teens are thinking and feeling and doing.
It’s about a couple of high school movie makers and the “dying girl” one of them is forced to befriend. From that set up, the film leans heavily on high school comedies of the past. It then proceeds to go out of its way to trip up our expectations about cliques, jocks, geeks and the prettiest girl in school.
Awkward Greg (Thomas Mann) is our narrator, a camera geek who lives outside the cliques with his “colleague,” Earl (RJ Cyler). They kill lunch hours watching classic cinema (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Burden of Dreams”) on YouTube in the office of the “cool” teacher. After school, they make parodies of those films — using stop-motion animation and costumes of their own creation that they wear in playing the stars of “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” or “A Sockwork Orange.”
Then Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) gives him bad news. His classmate, Rachel, just learned she’s dying of cancer. Greg, to his credit, reacts the way we’d expect a teen to react. Bummer. Too bad for her. But Mom wants more. Go talk to this girl.
“Do one nice thing for another person.”
What’s worse, Rachel doesn’t “need your stupid pity.” But Greg has just a little charm, and thanks to his parents (Nick Offerman is his sweetly eccentric college prof dad), empathy he didn’t know he’d developed. With disarming tactlessness, he insists on sticking around, and the story begins with the title “Day 1 of Doomed Friendship.”
Olivia Cooke, a winsome veteran of the other genre of “dead teenager” movies — horror (“The Quiet Ones,”“Ouija”) — gives Rachel a vulnerable beauty. She lets us see the terror at what is coming behind whatever brave front Rachel puts up.
Mann (“Project X”) manages the sensitive insensitivity Greg has to project. He’s scared, too. He needs pep talks from that cool teacher (Jon Bernthal), and from a Wolverine poster in Rachel’s room. Wolverine (the real voice of Hugh Jackman) chews Greg out for botching the empathy thing. Make a dying girl feel worse with your jokes?
“Not on my watch, pal.”
That’s one of many cute and funny touches that director and “Glee!” veteran Alfonso Gomez-Rejon slips into what should be the saddest movie since “The Fault in Our Stars.”
The films within the film are hilariously awful. And the assorted high school “types” amusing as ever. But it’s where “Me and Earl” departs from the old John Hughes “Breakfast Club” formula that distinguishes it.
The adults — Molly Shannon is Rachel’s weeping, crawl-in-a-bottle divorced mom — are sympathetic and they remember what it was like to be teens. The “hot girl” isn’t a “mean girl.”
Earl is given stereotypical poor black kid street smarts and oversexed teen dialogue. But Cyler makes Earl soulful, deep and smart, something the whole school seems to already know as Greg, and we the audience, find out.
Cooke and Mann carry the film, her making great use of Rachel’s cancer-makes-you-wise perspective, Mann playing up the slow and steep learning curve Greg endures. “I have stage four cancer” ends any argument, and the accusation, “You’re only hanging out with her because she has cancer” makes him try a little his soul searching.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t deep. But this sure-to-be-a-crowd-pleasing laugher/weeper reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with a romantic comedy that reaches for inspiring and cathartic between the laughs.