As the best-selling young-adult author Edgar Allan Poe observed in his 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition," "The death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." Few filmmakers have taken those words to heart as literally as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown), whose Sundance hit is about precisely that. Well, that and the way a self-absorbed high school kid is affected by said woman's premature demise. Mostly the latter.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is told from the point of view of a Pittsburgh senior named Greg (Thomas Mann), a youth obsessed with classic cinema and lacking in people skills. He's so ill equipped to handle human relationships, in fact, that he can't bring himself to call lifelong bud Earl (RJ Cyler) his friend. He calls him his "coworker."
What the two work on together are micro-budget parodies of the great films they love. Featuring stop-motion animation, primitively crafted clay figures and jokey titles, their projects suggest the sort of things Wes Anderson might've produced in his Clearasil years.
When you're watching a movie about a dying girl, you can use the occasional laugh, and Greg and Earl's bargain-basement blockbusters deliver. Among the most memorable are Senior Citizen Kane, My Dinner With André the Giant, 2:48 Cowboy and A Sockwork Orange, in which Kubrick's hell-raising droogs are played by, yup, white sock puppets.
One day Greg's mother (Connie Britton) takes him aside and orders him to visit a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's just been diagnosed with leukemia. It's one of the least subtle plot devices I've ever witnessed. The two young people don't know each other, and the mother's motivation isn't to cheer up Rachel or help her in some way — rather, it's to make Greg a better person. "You have been given a real opportunity!" she enthuses, though for what she neglects to say.
The answer quickly becomes apparent: He has the opportunity to take center stage in the anti-The Fault in Our Stars. As scripted by Jesse Andrews, based on his book, the picture seems to have the mission of confronting its characters with conventions of the dying-teen genre and congratulating itself on going the other way.
Characters in Greg and Rachel's situation, for example, would typically fall in love. Not only do they not fall in love, but Greg announces in voice-over that "No, this is not where the two lock eyes, declare their love and tumble into each other's arms." The director actually shoots the cliché version of events and then cuts to his presumably cooler twist on the situation. At such times, the movie can come off as a tad too pleased with itself. Hey, see what we just did there?
At other times, Gomez-Rejon comes uncomfortably close to treating Rachel's death with glibness. Scenes open with ironic intertitles such as "Day 1 of Doomed Friendship," and progress until she runs out of days. It's like (500) Days of Summer if Zooey Deschanel's character were terminal. Hey, I appreciate quirk as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure the untimely, painful demise of a young woman is the most appropriate subject for showcasing a filmmaker's hip worldview.
Don't get me wrong: The movie has moments of humor, warmth and real originality. And its young cast is immensely talented and appealing. I'm just not sure its heart is in the right place. No matter how close he gets to the Dying Girl, Greg makes sure the focus of the film remains Me.