The catch-22 involved in making a good coming-of-age story is that the wisdom necessary to its formulation must be withheld from its telling. The trick is to parcel out the wisdom as you go so that the protagonist, whose perspective is usually your only inlet to the plot, isn’t always wholly unbearable. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film adaptation of Jesse Andrews’s novel, sets the bar even higher by surrounding its self-centered, well-off (must it be mentioned white?) protagonist with a girl dying from leukemia and his poor black friend, both of whom are given the shaft, narrative-wise.
It’s something of a minor miracle that Me and Earl is as widely praised as it is, having essentially mopped up at Sundance 2015. The compulsory subsequent backlash only seemed to stem from its cutesy, Juno-esque meta embroidering, which was one of its biggest draws in the first place. It undoubtedly finds the “Me” of its title, detached high school senior Greg Gaines, to be ridiculous, and it also gets a pass from the film community for its avowed adoration of classic cinema, which for a high school dramedy is startlingly comprehensive. These concessions aside, there’s still something nagging in its nearly exclusive focus on Greg, whose gradual awakening to the harder struggles of others could have been further intensified with a closer look at his friends’ lives.
Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) are already an unlikely pair before meeting the dying girl. Having formed a bond through a mutual appreciation of great films, they’ve taken to spoofing their favorites by shooting their own versions based on a wordplay of the title, ranging from puerile to completely absurd. Peeping Tom becomes Pooping Tom. Apocalypse Now becomes A Box ‘o Lips, Wow. The latter we get to hear Greg try and fail to explain.
Their hobby is hush-hush, however. Greg is a steadfast loner outside his “partnership” with Earl, staving off the dangers of genuine human connection by superficially allying himself to every clique in school, hiding his real personality in the process. Greg’s mother pressures him into visiting Rachel (Olivia Cooke), an old friend recently diagnosed with cancer, setting the plot in motion and threatening Greg’s carefully cultivated social position once he and Rachel grow closer together.
Andrews and Gomez-Rejon strike a tone to match Greg’s confused state of affairs, creating a movie that mashes up and purees a bunch of other movies, fizzing with the combined spirit of Marc Webb, Diablo Cody, John Hughes, Gustin Nash, Nicholas Sparks, Nick Hornby, and more, and shifting from zany to self-aware to crude to sentimental. Whereas Greg and Earl adore movies renowned for their directorial vision and strip them of all meaning in their goofy homages, Gomez-Rejon pieces together a collage of a bright kid with no confidence who prefers to latch onto the genius of others.
Mann is the definition of irony in the role, making the exceedingly droll Greg a captivating presence, whether he’s writhing on the floor in mock agony or examining a popsicle in a drug-induced haze. Without question he’s helped by an underused Cyler, whose even more deadpan Earl is an effective, albeit mysterious, foil. Cooke likewise is great and even more underused, but at least her absence for a large part of the movie is made up for toward the end.
Me and Earl doesn’t build to a satisfying conclusion, and it doesn’t have to do with the potential spoiler embedded in its title. As Rachel’s condition grows worse, Andrews’s script hones in on an increasingly petty, self-absorbed Greg, who feels betrayed by Rachel and Earl. Our patience is put to the ultimate test as we wait for him to do the right thing. With that, Andrews reminds us that wisdom comes at a price, and he and Gomez-Rejon don’t allow us to complete the passage without anointing us with a hefty dose of regret. Trust in their reasons for focusing so closely on Greg and you’ll be treated to an especially hard coming-of-age story, one that doesn’t offer as many answers as you’d expect.