The big noise from this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is a weaselly liar of a movie. (It's also good.) It comes on full of self-deprecating bluster, professing no interest in jerking tears a la "The Fault in Our Stars," as it lays out its tale of a Pittsburgh high school senior's friendship with a fellow classmate diagnosed with cancer.
But gradually, as the narrator-protagonist learns to lower his emotional guard, the film lunges, sensitively, for the jugular.
This was a film, about a kid for whom cinema is all, destined to be launched in the company of movie geeks at a major festival. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's comedy-drama spurred a bidding war won by Fox Searchlight at Sundance, where it won the two top prizes. With an appealing perma-shrug and wry air of self-defeatism, Thomas Mann plays Greg, the "me" of the title. This half-abrasive, half-genial social misfit spends most of his free time remaking Criterion Collection titles such as "The 400 Blows" or "Mean Streets" or "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" as mini-spoofs with a relatively straight face.
Greg's best friend (he refers to him as his "co-worker") is surly yet supportive Earl, played by RJ Cyler. Their relationship is defined by nattering film references by the ton, interrupted by the occasional yearning for their school's females.
The dying girl is Rachel, portrayed by Olivia Cooke. Her sphinxlike way of tolerating Greg's supreme social awkwardness plausibly gives way to deep affection, even when the script makes you take that part on faith. Egged on by his mother (Connie Britton, perfect in an imperfectly pencil-sketched part), Greg is guilted into befriending Rachel after she receives her leukemia diagnosis, leaves school and confines herself largely to her room. Rachel's mother (Molly Shannon) copes with the situation with a glass of the nearest available whatever.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" deflects its own Young Adult best-seller cliches by carving up the story, as Andrews did in his rather raunchier 2012 novel, into chapters with titles such as: "The Part Where I Meet a Dying Girl," or "Day One of Doomed Friendship." If Bertolt Brecht entered the YA market, with help from the guys who wrote "(500) Days of Summer," then you'd have something like Gomez-Rejon's sophomore feature. It's nearly impossible to describe it outside the brackets of Greg's own relentless cinephilia; after all, we hear in the opening seconds that we're about to watch a film about a kid who "made a film so bad it literally killed someone."
Gomez-Rejon worked as a personal assistant to both Martin Scorsese and "Birdman" Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and he attacks this material with cameras blazing. A Scorsese shot is followed by a Kubrickian glare into the camera, and then a playful visual pivot akin to the fanciful world of Michel Gondry's movies. In Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind," the characters' souls were saved by their love of film, and by their cheapjack remakes of beloved titles great and small. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" trades in a related adoration for the healing power of cinema, and if that sounds a little sticky, well, the film is that, too.
The supporting cast includes Nick Offerman as Greg's tenured sociology professor father, which is code for "home all the time, cooking." Jon Bernthal adds spice and solidity as Greg's history teacher. The location work in Pittsburgh, captured well and fluidly by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, is full of forgiving light and graceful, hill-dotted compositions.
Andrews has done smart work in paring away various characters from his original novel, including Greg's siblings. The chief limitation of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is an old story: However touching, Cooke's Rachel is there mainly to prop up the sweetly messed-up young male lead, to laugh at his jokes, and then to quietly guide him toward adulthood. At the same time "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is often very funny, in its arch way, and many will weep big buckets of laughter-through-tears. Gomez-Rejon has a seriously promising future; by design, this film is shot in a hundred different styles, reflecting the sentimental and cinematic education of its protagonist.
Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language, thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Opens at Arclight Hollywood; the Landmark, West L.A.; AMC Century City 15; in wider release June 26