Anyone who buys a ticket to a film called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” goes in fully expecting to cry. It’s sort of a given. The surprise, then, is the laughter: the near-constant stream of wise, insightful jokes that make it so easy to cozy up to characters dealing with a tough emotional situation. The story of a high-school senior forced to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and the sincere, nonsexual connection that forms as a result (sorry, “The Fault in Our Stars,” but there’s no nookie here), this rousing adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ novel is destined not only to connect with young audiences in a big way, but also to endure as a touchstone for its generation.
After landing a coveted spot on the 2012 Black List, the coveted assignment went to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who worked as a personal assistant to Martin Scorsese, shot second unit on such films as “Babel” and “Argo,” and oversaw 20 episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” for producer Ryan Murphy. Despite all that experience, there’s nothing jaded about his approach here, which balances the new-toy giddiness of a first-timer (this is actually his second feature) with the wisdom of restraint in key areas. As such, he pushes the envelope with his dynamic camerawork and framing, but pulls back where others might have gone heavy, downplaying the sentimentality and music (from Brian Eno).
Premiering to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the kind of movie that gives the Utah-based sprocket opera its sterling reputation among budding cinephiles — those who associate Sundance with films that defy formulas, take risks and resonate on a deeper level than the studio-made stuff they grew up on. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is just the type of teenager who appreciates such movies. Maybe that’s why he struggles with the best way to narrate it. His isn’t the first “I’m with cancer” story to come along in recent years, although this one doesn’t want to jerk tears. Rather, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews are determined to earn them — and they do, by making us care about the characters, starting with Greg.
He’s a familiar enough guy, played by a normal-looking actor (you might recognize Mann from “Project X”) with all the awkwardness we all feel in high school. Greg’s coping mechanism is to make superficial friendships with all the different social cliques in school. He’s good at telling people what they want to hear, but not so great at real human interaction, as evidenced by the fact he refers to his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), as his “co-worker.” The duo spend hours together everyday studying and making short-film parodies of classic movies, most of which even dedicated film majors don’t discover until college. (With titles like “A Sockwork Orange” and “Pooping Tom,” they’re all terrible, but that’s sort of the joke, one that astoundingly never gets old.)
As hobbies go, such amateur filmmaking is designed to spare Greg the hassle of actually having to interact with his peers. He’s especially terrified of girls, which makes the request from his mother (Connie Britton) to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) a particularly challenging one. Since the movie is committed to approaching this task with as much humor as possible, Gomez-Rejon casts Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who surely would have reminded underage Greg of “The Graduate’s” Mrs. Robinson, if only he had ventured out a bit farther than the Criterion Collection (which gets primo placement throughout).
Rachel doesn’t have any more interest in receiving pity than Greg does in doling it out, which explains how the two kids, who would never be friends under normal circumstances, manage to shift the focus to other things. Turns out Greg’s a pretty funny guy (those punny movie titles notwithstanding), and as you probably guessed, he stands to gain at least as much from these interactions as she does. Still, it takes Earl’s involvement to nudge the conversations into more personal territory — although he’s been plenty candid with us since the beginning.
Finding Greg’s voice must have been the hardest thing for Andrews, whose eloquent adaptation of his own novel could have turned out wildly different in the hands of another helmer — like Gus Van Sant, who took a more twee approach with his even more “Harold and Maude”-indebted terminal-teen drama “Restless.” Meanwhile, compared with last summer’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” which Josh Boone directed with almost no sense of personal style, “Girl” practically erupts with technique: The camera hardly ever sits still, offering odd wide-angle perspectives and panning in big, self-conscious maneuvers with nearly every shot.
Such a flashy approach comes at enormous risk, obviously, since it draws attention to all the clever surface choices when we should really be trying to focus on the connections being made onscreen. But it also seems to fit a character who is himself an aspiring filmmaker. And it makes the few scenes in which Korean d.p. Chung-hoon Chung (“Stoker”) holds steady and lingers on Greg and Rachel all the more effective. There are two scenes in particular where the jokes cease and these two fragile humans are allowed to reveal their true emotions, which serve to define the movie, in place of all those showy moments when the camera is busy rotating sideways as Greg walks to school or following him from the living room upstairs in one elaborately choreographed gesture. Still, Gomez-Rejon’s tricks should help distinguish the film in the minds of those young viewers impressed by such innovative flourishes.
The same could be said for a few of the more eccentric supporting roles, including Greg’s father (Nick Offerman, playing a culturally curious version of his usually brusque self) and heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). As Earl, newcomer Cyler stands out as well, evolving from comic relief to a sort of conscience figure as the relationship between Greg and Rachel deepens. It’s refreshing to see that bond flourish as something platonic (romantically speaking, Greg is more interested in another classmate, played by Katherine Hughes), which also allows the film to depict Rachel’s deterioration in a realistic way. There are plenty of young actresses who wouldn’t dare to be seen bald, and a whole other group who would have made a big fuss of it, but Cooke approaches the role with quiet dignity.
And yet, none of this would have worked had the team not found the right Greg. The story demands someone with enough insight into other people’s personalities that he can size them up in an instant, but not so much that he comes off as a jerk. Blending wit and modesty, Mann fits the bill, coming across as an overgrown kid with a good heart, but virtually no practice in relating to others — which is perhaps the thing that makes his experience so profoundly relatable.