Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may not be the best teen cancer weepie ever made, if there even is a best teen cancer weepie. But it’s surely the most adorable, for better or worse — less like The Fault in Our Stars and more like Diary of a Wimpy Kid reconfigured for a slightly older, hipper audience, and with cancer thrown in.
It’s so carefully designed to feel laid-back that its breeziness comes off like a calculation; its emotional pull is sometimes irresistible, which may make you want to resist it all the more. But the movie has flashes of wit and originality and feeling. (It won this year's Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance.) And it doesn’t hurt that this adaptation of Jesse Andrews’s 2012 novel — directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, from a screenplay by Andrews — was shot in Pittsburgh, on real streets that look like places where people actually live. Some scenes were even filmed in the house in which Andrews himself grew up (and where his parents still live), a pretty Victorian that’s well kept but also comfortably worn around the edges. The shelves in the living room are lined with books that you can tell weren’t chosen and arranged by some production designer.
So even when the story twists in directions it maybe shouldn’t — and keeps adamantly promising a plot resolution that’s different from the one we ultimately get — it’s still easy enough to coast along with Me and Earl. Thomas Mann (who played one of the wild partiers in Project X) is Greg, a smart but awkward high school senior who has turned his unwillingness to fit in at school into a survival tactic: Instead of choosing to hang out with just one group — like the theater geeks, goths, or stoners — he surfs the spaces between each, professing a benign, noncommittal, and thus false friendliness toward all. This gangly kid with a way-too-nasal voice has exactly one friend: Earl, played by the half-snazzy, half-deadpan RJ Cyler, lives on the other side of town, a side that’s not nearly as nice as Greg's. The two have been pals since childhood, though Greg, wary of the commitment that the word “friend” represents, refers to Earl as his “co-worker.” Long ago Greg and Earl found out they shared a taste for European art films, fostered by Greg’s sociology-professor dad, played by a whiskery Nick Offerman, who spends much of the movie drifting around in a terrycloth bathrobe, just as you can believe a sociology professor would. Now Greg and Earl have become amateur filmmakers themselves, filling up a shelf with parodies of film-school classics that they produce, direct, and star in — the titles include Senior Citizen Kane, A Sockwork Orange, and, my personal favorite, Monorash.
Greg's ideas of what friendship can mean get upended when his meddlesome mother (Connie Britton) insists that he ring up a leukemia-stricken classmate he barely knows, Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Rachel, her hair a thatch of unruly waves — until, of course, she starts losing it — is a somber girl who’s smart enough to know that she doesn’t want or need anyone’s charity friendship. And yet the two become close, helped along, undoubtedly, by some of the marvelous Brian Eno music on the movie’s soundtrack: The montage-y scene in which they finally click is set to Eno’s “I’ll Come Running,” as sublime a song about loyalty as has ever been written.
Yet, to me, the film’s more resonant friendship is the one between Greg (who’s white) and Earl (who’s black): That’s partly because the unspoken ease between the two plays, mischievously, with the idea of the token black friend. Forget tokens — until Rachel comes along, Earl is Greg’s only friend. When Greg makes the trek from his nice house to Earl’s not-so-nice one, he’s greeted by a cranky pit bull and an older brother of Earl's he finds vaguely menacing. Greg is neither hip to nor put off by that setting; it’s just different. Earl and Greg live in separate worlds of stereotypes, but the place where they come together — the kinship they find over those ridiculous homemade movies — is a world of their own making.
What’s more, it’s Earl who, at first, can talk most easily to Rachel, loosening her up, making her laugh, treating her as a person and not a cancer victim — he’s more at ease with the world than Greg is. Some of the gags in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feel a bit tired and oversold, like the way Rachel’s boozy mom (played by Molly Shannon) insists on cuddling Greg inappropriately. And the picture sidles up too coyly, like a hermit crab, to its tearjerker ending — a finale that’s inevitable, even though the filmmakers take great pains to make us think otherwise. The friendship between Greg and Rachel is engaging enough, and these two performers are sweet together. But the lazy bond that’s in place before the movie even starts, that between Greg and Earl, is the more intriguing. What brought these two together in the first place? We don’t really know. Their solidarity is like a weed poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, unlikely yet inevitable. Somehow it just happened, and then grew without careful tending. A good friend sticks by you when you have cancer. A better friend sticks by you for no reason.