Part of growing up is learning that the world is not a mechanism to advance your narrative alone. But perspective does not come easy, especially for teenagers, who are more sensitive and self-aware than small children, but are often not as empathetic as adults. There’s a sliver of that awareness in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, starting with the Me-first title and continuing a little later, as its gawky protagonist copes with the fact that his new friend is fighting a losing battle with leukemia. But Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s risible second feature—winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year—doesn’t have the perspective that its hero lacks. The world is little but a mechanism to advance his narrative—to make him a better filmmaker, to make him a better friend, and perhaps to get him into the college of his choice. Everyone else in the movie might as well be dead by the end of it, too, for all their individual destinies matter in the grand scheme of things. Gomez-Rejon has erected a gleaming shrine to adolescent narcissism.
Bursting with a first-movie energy that’s occasionally exhilarating, but mostly just overcranked, Me And Earl introduces the “me” of the title, Greg (Thomas Mann), as a Pittsburgh teen who prizes his calculated anonymity in high school, but is plenty expressive off-campus. Together with his longtime collaborator and best friend Earl (RJ Cyler)—though his distance from other people keeps him from acknowledging Earl as more than a co-worker—Greg has been making juvenile riffs on classic films for years in secret. With titles like “A Sockwork Orange,” “The 400 Bros,” and “Pooping Tom,” they’ve been mostly a stockpile of private jokes inspired by the movies they watch over lunch in their teacher’s office. But Greg learns to open up a little bit when his mother (Connie Britton) learns that one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has cancer and forces him to spend a little time with her. What starts as an awkward routine for Greg—more so with Rachel’s wine-glugging mother (Molly Shannon) going Anne Bancroft on him—grows into a complicated friendship that inspires him as an artist and a human being.
It also inspires Rachel to... um... well, at least she gets some company out of the deal, which isn’t easy for a terminally ill kid to do. And Earl gets to... um... well, perhaps feel good about collaborating with Greg on a project for Rachel that isn’t stupid for once. (Though it’s still pretty stupid.) The important thing is that Greg experiences real growth, and that the film, based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (who scripted), be geared relentlessly to send him on his way. Though Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a sop to film buffs, with references ranging from Burden Of Dreams to Taxi Driver and beyond, the nearest point of comparison for its cancer story is The Fault In Our Stars, which is less hip, but more honest and moving about the “grenade”-like effect that caring for a terminal child can have on those around her.
Though Andrews and Gomez-Rejon are conscious of Greg’s navel-gazing tendencies, they’re not so generous as to consider the other characters beyond what they can do for him. The racial and class differences between Greg and Earl, who’s black, go uncommented upon, despite Earl’s other-side-of-the-tracks home, which looks like a set from a Tim Burton production; Rachel teaches him to care, but mostly as an act of self-sacrifice. It’s not a great sign when Earl and Rachel, the two characters who share space with Greg in the title, are notable for saying “dem titties” and for dying, respectively.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl can’t survive the irony of teaching Greg to think of someone other than himself while advancing a narrative that contradicts that message entirely. And though there are some touching moments in the film—Shannon’s mix of positivity and encroaching grief is especially heartbreaking—vast swaths of it don’t work: The restless camerawork is unmotivated and showy (Gomez-Rejon was once Martin Scorsese’s personal assistant), the lunchroom cliques in Greg’s high school are ancient teen-movie anthropology, and the short films are the sort of one-joke gimmick that Wes Anderson would compress into a single montage. The overall tone of the film is cutesy and slight, with chapter headings that knowingly reference the dramatic turns it’s about to take. Curiously, “The Part Where A Girl Dies So I Can Become A Better Person” is not one of them.