Director Peter Hutchings’ “Then Came You” isn’t a movie for cynics. It’s for romantics — or at least teen sleepover parties. Though it has many of the qualities that made teen terminal-illness weepies “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” work, Hutchings’ dramedy eschews much of those films’ sincerity and intimacy in favor of sap and saccharine.
Withdrawn 19-year-old Calvin Lewis (Asa Butterfield) is fearful of most things in life — particularly because he thinks he’s dying. He’s convinced his dad (David Koechner) that he needs an expensive litany of medical testing. Despite the results turning up negative for every illness, Calvin is sure he’s sick and journals everything from his daily temperature to the size of a mole on his chest. Concerned older brother Frank (Tyler Hoechlin) has tried in vain to pull the hypochondriac out of his depressive funk, but his attempts have failed miserably. Not even Calvin’s doctor can get through to him with a prescription to attend cancer support group therapy in order to gain perspective.
All of this changes once 17-year-old Skye Aitken (Maisie Williams) struts into group. The beguiling Brit, decked out in an ever-changing array of punk-rock wigs and cat-eared knit caps (wardrobe shorthand for “quirky!”), is everything Calvin is not: headstrong, plucky, impulsive, and, well, actually dying. She has an aggressive tumor limiting her time left on Earth, and is determined to spend every last moment living life to the fullest, which means ditching group in favor of a better form of therapy. She enlists Calvin’s help in completing her “to die list.” It’s “a bucket-list,” she says, “but not as lame.” Tasks include formative experiences (like learning to shave a man’s face, busking, getting and losing a job), light-hearted petty crimes (like shoplifting, spray-painting, gambling), and serious requests (like losing her virginity to a cute classmate). Little by little, Skye, with all of her vibrancy and effervescence, teaches Calvin to embrace life just when she’s about to lose her own.
Pacing is never an issue, as Hutchings and screenwriter Fergal Rock get to the heart of the matter by the crucial 20-minute mark and keep the proceedings snappy. Still, there’s a lot of insufferable setup we’re forced to endure to make it to the genuinely sweet moments within the narrative. Character ironies and eccentricities are on-the-nose and serve to annoy rather than add any sense of pathos. They shout at the audience instead of subtly adding layers: Calvin works at an airport, but has never flown; he’s got his whole life ahead of him, but is too afraid to live it; Skye sports a brave face, but really she’s just as afraid as Calvin.
If that’s not enough, the filmmakers can never quite shed the trope-riddled first impression of Williams’ character, though they admirably try. Even when the film finally settles into its rhythm and starts showing us depth buried beneath her façade, she’s still battling the specter of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label. Skye is loud, obnoxious, and grating, making Calvin uncomfortable with her brash overfamiliarity. She shows up at the airport with a goldfish in an IV bag to emphasize that she’s kooky. Her actions are also borderline rude: She leaves Calvin in the lurch with the cops at one point, and sets up a giant misunderstanding — a formulaic “you lied to me” moment — between him and his slightly older crush, airline stewardess with big dreams Izzy (Nina Dobrev). Izzy pity-dates Calvin, thinking he has cancer, but shockingly Calvin never confronts her about it when the truth comes out.
Since the filmmakers’ hearts are clearly in the right place, it’s a shame its parts couldn’t knit together a bit more seamlessly. The narrative’s lifeblood is the sweet friendship that develops between Calvin and Skye — and the actors’ magnetic chemistry keeps that alive. Surprisingly, the filmmakers don’t overcomplicate it by giving them typical romantic feelings for each other. There’s no jealousy when Calvin dates Izzy, nor when Skye hooks up with her infatuation. There’s an equanimity to their bond that’s chaste and undeniably charming. They also help each other out versus their relationship being completely one-sided. Skye’s fully in control of the first to-do list montage, but when Calvin takes control of the second, it really grabs our hearts. Tender moments are also given air when we see Skye’s mom quietly break down right before Skye sneaks away, and when Frank comforts Calvin during an anxiety attack.