The biggest flaw in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is right there in the title: the first word, specifically. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance-winning coming-of-age drama is rife with meta-textual ambition, featuring a fourth wall-breaking narrator, rapid cuts to stop-motion animation, set design so attentive to detail that it evokes Wes Anderson, and a teen-with-cancer plot that largely manages to skirt cliché. Which makes it all the more frustrating that it filters all of this through the point of view of a bland, self-centered protagonist whose personal growth makes up the narrative arc of the film while simultaneously being the least interesting thing about it.
The “me” of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg (Thomas Mann), a gawky high school senior in Pittsburgh who narrates his story to the audience with irritating self-awareness, essaying a breakdown of his school’s jocks/geeks/stoners sub-cultures as if it isn’t territory that’s been covered in a thousand other films. Greg cultivates his invisibility in the school, proudly an acquaintance to all and an enemy to none, and spends most of his time in a history teacher’s office watching art films with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), who helps him make silly but thoughtful movie parodies that have names like My Dinner with Andre the Giant or A Sockwork Orange. When his mother (Connie Britton) hears that a classmate of Greg’s has been diagnosed with leukemia, she nudges him into spending time with her, kindling a friendship that Greg's voice-over constantly reminds us is doomed.
Both Earl and the cancer-stricken Rachel (Olivia Cooke) would serve as far more involving protagonists than Greg. Relegated to the sidelines, the young actors deliver rather spellbinding performances, though they’re limited by their dull narrative purpose. Earl is sometimes Greg’s comically blunt sidekick (he’s African American and supposedly from a “bad part of town” that consists of two ramshackle shotgun houses) and at other times a wise sage beyond his years; Rachel has a doomed sort of maturity, watching sadly but empathetically as the people around her struggle with her tragic diagnosis.
In the middle is the annoyingly precocious Greg. His parents are gently encouraging oddballs (his dad, played by Nick Offerman, putters around the house cooking adventurous ethnic foods), he’s blessed with unique artistic talent (the quirky films he makes with Earl are lovingly rendered on screen as earthy gobs of genius by Gomez-Rejon), and he’s innately funny and charming. So, of course, he spends the whole film complaining about what a boring nonentity he is and how detached he feels from everyone, needing the shock of his friend dying of cancer to finally push him into adulthood.
This is what keeps Me and Earl from ever feeling particularly authentic or weighty. Far soapier teen dramas along similar lines, like last year’s The Fault in Our Stars, might suffer from brutally obvious symbolism and sudden plot twists, but they also value their lead characters as equals. Rachel is lovingly performed by Cooke, but exists mostly to nudge Greg toward his own personal realizations. Screenwriter Jesse Andrews, who adapted his 2012 novel, gives viewers plenty of evidence to recognize George’s big heart and his personal flaws, but doesn't let Greg himself discover them until the end of the film.
Still, this is a drama about a young girl with cancer, and its final act is designed to hit viewers hard. Gomez-Rejon (a longtime second-unit director who made his feature debut last year with The Town That Dreaded Sundown) shows off way too much in the film’s first hour, filling the frame with tons of overtly clever details and busily moving his camera around to no real end. His meticulous compositions have drawn many comparisons to Wes Anderson, but Me and Earl's kinetic filming of perfunctory, high-school hustle and bustle evokes Richard Kelly's work on Donnie Darko (another Sundance favorite, many moons ago), while lacking that film’s supernatural edge. It’s a relief when Gomez-Rejon settles down a little for the film's more somber closing scenes, which help reflect Greg’s growing maturity in the face of Rachel's advancing illness.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is both helped and hindered by its status as a Sundance darling—it’s hard to walk into a much-hyped drama about a teenage girl with cancer expecting it to reinvent the wheel. There are only so many ways to tell this story, and despite the self-aware voice-over and multiple films-within-a-film, there’s little to Me and Earl’s plot that hasn’t been seen before, even if it handles its final moments much more deftly than its peers. Greg's personal evolution closes on a powerful note that helps rescue the film from being formulaic; but it’s still a shame that it’s Greg’s story, first and foremost, that the film chooses to tell.