In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the “Me” is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who has successfully navigated the perils of that particular treacherous habitat by expertly positioning himself as innocuously forgettable. As he explains in listing the various cliques that exist in his school, he’s managed to make himself a casually likable acquaintance to everyone. That is, he stays on the safe periphery to everyone except Earl (Ronald Cyler II), someone he’s known since kindergarten and who he refers to as a co-worker, due the dozens of silly amateur films they’ve directed together. Greg’s precarious equilibrium is disrupted when his mother (Connie Britton) urges him to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia. As might be expected, that relationship changes everything.
Jesse Andrews wrote the screenplay, adapted from his own novel. It’s probably worth noting that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was first published in the spring of 2012, mere weeks after John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars arrived. Though there are ultimately more differences than similarities between the two stories, it’s hard to ignore the teenaged girl afflicted with cancer at the core of both of them. And Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does often feel like a scruffier version of director Josh Boone’s take on Green’s book, one infused with a thick dollop of indie flick quirk. That’s to the film’s benefit, but it can also be a little wearying, especially when director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon sends his camera careening around certain scenes, as if it’s on the agitated precipice of an amphetamine high. Fortunately, that affectation is made far more forgivable by the way it accentuates those moments when Gomez-Rejon smartly, bravely decides to frame high-impact moments as single, continuous shots, letting his young actors, who are strong all around, carry the emotion of the piece.
There’s also a lot of charm to be found in the films of Greg and Earl, glimpsed briefly throughout the film. Their creative methodology begins with modifying a title of a piece of classic cinema (they have been imbued with eclectic taste through the tutelage of Greg’s professor father, played by Nick Offerman as a man happily on permanent sabbatical), usually with a dopey pun but sometimes with a gently satiric tweaking (I’m partial to 2:48 PM Cowboy), and then creating an arty scenario around the new name. The pastime takes on greater gravity when they’re enlisted by another classmate, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), to make a movie for Rachel, who’s tracked through Greg and Earl’s shared filmography as a means of distracted herself from her ailing health. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t quite get at the ways in which certain people make sense of the world through movies or even personal creativity — that’s the sort of thematic thread that Gomez-Rejon’s mentor Martin Scorsese might have found his way to — but this important element of the film does offer a useful metaphor for the process of growing up, shifting from the goofy distractions of youth to concerns of greater gravity. It’s maybe not incredibly profound, but it does help set the film apart. Gomez-Rejon may have assumed that some of his attention-getting visuals would make the film properly distinctive, but that verges of anxious over-directing. It’s really the rest of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that suggests he’s a filmmaker with something to say that’s worthy of attention.