Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Ciné-snobs, enjoy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl while you can, because it will soon become one of those films that you roll your eyes at the mention of. The Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner at this year’s Sundance is one of those clever, energetic, inventive, affecting films that end up becoming the favorite movie of a great many people, including lots who aren’t especially movie lovers (the latter won’t be put off by the fact that Me and Earl is a cinephile movie par excellence). By virtue of its certain popularity, Alfonso Gomes-Rejon’s film is fated to be reviled as much as it is relished, so before that happens, you should enjoy this brief period ahead that offers the possibility of untainted enjoyment—because, seriously, there’s just too much to like and admire in Me and Earl for even the sneeriest not to get in on the fun.

The main accusation that will inevitably be leveled against Me and Earl is that it’s contrived and calculated—and while that’s arguably true, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film’s acute level of sarcastic self-reference is built into its fabric, as the story is narrated by—and filtered through the agitated mindset of—a painfully self-conscious, self-deprecating, defensive high-schooler. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a Pittsburgh teenager who starts the film confessing in voiceover: “I have no idea how to tell this story” (the term “Unreliable Narrator” might as well flash up on screen in 10-foot neon letters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gomez-Rejon had toyed with that idea). He then experimentally types up the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”—which triggers a fantasy animation involving Vietnamese food and a member of Pussy Riot (the best of times), and a torture involving crocodiles and an acid bath (the worst).

This is not only a neurotically self-aware movie, but also a self-consciously literary one; it’s adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own 2012 novel. The story kicks off with Greg beginning senior year—“The Part Where I Begin Senior Year,” reads the first of several to-the-point “chapter headings”—and explaining the various social codes of his high school. His personal survival tactic involves negotiating the various tribes or “kingdoms” of his school, being accepted by each one but truly affiliated to none—in other words, staying safe but not actually having friends per se. His only real friend—although it’s a symptom of Greg’s reserve that he prefers to call him his “co-worker”—is Earl (R.J. Cyler), a sardonic black kid he’s known since early childhood. Together they have long been making a series of spoof movies, parodying screen classics by way of flip wordplay, sometimes witty, some embarrassingly lame, you decide which: Pooping Tom, Senior Citizen Cane, My Dinner with André the Giant, Grumpy Cul de Sacs (think about it). The most inspired is A Sockwork Orange, and the movies (sometimes seen at length, sometimes barely glimpsed) have all been made, like the occasional animation inserts, by Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh. You’ll groan, but pleasurably; they’re clear relatives of the “sweded” movies in Be Kind Rewind, but smarter and more concise.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

As for the dying girl, she’s Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate whom Greg barely knows; the daughter of a friend of his mother, she has been diagnosed with leukemia, and Greg’s mom (the sublime Connie Britton, stepping down from her Nashville country-goddess grandeur) instructs him to hang out with her, to cheer her up. Once Greg and Rachel have gotten over the awkwardness of the situation, and his compulsion to ply her with his arch humor, the pair click and become true friends, Rachel helping unearth Greg’s inner adult, Greg helping her negotiate an unimaginably rough period in her life. We naturally assume we’re in for a tender teenage romance; “If this was a touching romantic story…” Greg begins, telling us all the things we could expect if it were, then concludes, “but this isn’t a touching romantic story.”

Thank goodness it’s not—not of the kind we’ve seen too many of, especially when decorative young adult illness is thrown into the mix. This is neither The Fault in Our Stars nor Now Is Good, nor is it Gus Van Sant’s appalling Restless (11) in which Mia Wasikowska wore adorable hats and a pixie crop in an advertisement for the beauty benefits of teenage cancer. Me and Earl is a levelheaded, irreverent riposte to such fictions, but it’s also something rare—a story about ordinary male-female friendship. The film is subtle and perceptive about Greg and Rachel’s gradually discovering each other’s personalities and differences through various conversations, some of them plausibly combative or soul-searching, and without sentiment. They unlock the best and the most interesting in themselves and each other, and most realistically of all, they spend quite some time just being bored and impatient with each other.

Their relationship is certainly the hub of the film—and it works because the two leads are so good. Olivia Cooke was insipid in last year’s Ouija, but it was an insipid film. Here she does suburban ordinariness very nicely—she’s not required to play Rachel as a magnetic Untamed Spirit. Besides the fact of her having the courage to go shaven-headed for much of the role (bolder still is her willingness to wear some very blah dungarees), Cooke makes Rachel believably reserved, thoughtful and often introverted, playing her as intelligent, imaginative, and bracingly prosaic—and certainly in no way what she might have been in a lesser treatment of this material, a mere conduit for Greg’s self-discovery.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Meanwhile, Thomas Mann is very funny and personable—his Greg deeply gauche yet far too smart for mere dorkdom, flailing in self-doubt, constantly lacerating himself on the blades of his over-acute wit. Mann is more charismatic than he possibly realizes: he resembles a slightly bulbous tadpole considering whether or not to turn into Jeff Bridges, he does a creditable Werner Herzog impersonation, and he doesn’t make a big deal about carrying the movie as much as he does. It’s the best gauche-smart male teen turn since Craig Roberts’s debut in the British film Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 10), a Nouvelle Vague tribute that would sit perfectly along Me and Earl in a Precocious Movie Nerds double-bill.

Me and Earl is shot by Korean DP (and long-term Park Chan-wook collaborator) Chung-hoon Chung and directed by Gomez-Rejon, a regular on American Horror Story and Glee, whose feature debut was last year’s creditable meta-horror exercise The Town That Dreaded Sundown. These are professionals who know how to be flamboyant; they pull out all the visual stops to comically illustrate the script, but not in a way that makes you wince as you do when you’re over-bombarded with cute and amusing stimuli—I’m thinking of the Jean-Pierre Jeunet school, or last year’s German literary adaptation Wetlands. The camera, the design (Gerald Sullivan), the editing (David Trachtenberg) are always doing stuff —there are always oddball flourishes like sudden camera tilts or exaggerated symmetries (it’s almost superfluous these days comparing such effects to Wes Anderson, they’re so much part of the landscape) and little comic riffs, like the photo of Hugh Jackman on Rachel’s wall, which suddenly lectures Greg in the actual voice of Hugh Jackman. There are felicities of design, from glimpses of the arcane world cuisine that Greg’s dad experiments with, through the most appealing secondhand book-and-DVD store I’ve seen in a film for some time (for all I know, it’s a real Pittsburgh store), to local touches like the use of that city’s blue-and-white-tiled Buhl Building. Along with some Nico Muhly music, a little too pizzicato-laden for my taste, there’s also a selection of early Brian Eno, from the days when he actually wrote songs, and they were tuneful, perverse, and hilarious.

The support cast is fine too—Nick Offerman, regally laid back in dressing gown as Greg’s dad, Connie Britton painfully oozing compassion as his mom (a nice family-hug gag: the cat gets crushed), Molly Shannon deliciously piquant as Rachel’s ever-tipsy, oversharing mom, and some great bit parts in the school crowd, not least Masam Holden as universally reviled white rapper Ill Phil.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Ah, but where’s Earl in all this? Earl, it happens, remains an oddly nebulous presence, despite Cyler’s nicely abrasive performance. Earl is a scowly counterpart to Greg, equally sardonic but more self-assured, but he’s on the verge of not really being a character. He often feels more like Greg’s familiar, an externalized embodiment of his creative spirit, or a Jiminy Cricket who represents his conscience, says the things Greg can’t, forcing his hand by making him act. Earl remains oddly unreal, functional—a black kid from the tough side of town, a bridge between Greg’s white middle-class world and a barely glimpsed, indeed dangerous zone of blackness (Earl has a much tougher older brother who keeps an aggressive dog). Earl doesn’t have his own story, or an entirely formed self; he feels uncomfortably like the repressed Other in this tale, and there’s definitely a counter-movie to be made from Earl’s point of view. But maybe the secret life of a teenage African-American Werner Herzog fan is something that U.S. independent cinema is not yet ready for.