If you grew up, as I did, watching old black-and-white movies on a local television channel, then you know the experience of learning young that there is a whole world of movies outside the ones shown at the multiplex. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," the baffling Sundance hit (it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize), directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, with a script by Jesse Andrews, based on his best-selling novel, features two teenage characters obsessed with the Great Movies. Other than that acquisitive movie-mad mindset, it is a pandering, self-flattering mess, featuring unearned catharsis, lazy clichés and characters presented in broad, sometimes-offensive stereotypes.
The worst part is that "Me and Earl" believes it is aware of all of this. Every cliché arrives with a wink of self-knowing commentary before it, to say, "Yes, we know this is a cliche, but we are making a comment about the cliché!" Saying it don't make it so. Besides, such commentary has been done before, and it's been done much better. There's a laziness at work in "Me and Earl," a reliance on well-trod ground and over-chewed cultural tropes, and perhaps it is supposed to be that way (these are kids who see everything through the lens of their movie-watching), but it still doesn't work. The winks about the clichés, including the one in the title, only serve to point up how tired those clichés are.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a detached and depressive teenager, who resists emotional involvement to such a degree that he can't even admit that his best friend since childhood, Earl (RJ Cyler), is his best friend. He refers to Earl, instead, as a "co-worker." He and Earl grew up watching movies like Werner Herzog's "Aguirre The Wrath of God", Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," Powell and Pressberger's "Tales of Hoffmann," and spend their free time as teenagers making their own movies, spoofs of the greats with titles like "The 400 Bros," "The Sockwork Orange," and "2:48 p.m. Cowboy." One day Greg's mother (Connie Britton) orders him to go visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate just diagnosed with cancer. Greg does not even know Rachel, but he shows up at her house, and is immediately lusted over by Rachel's boozy mother (Molly Shannon), who answers the door with a drink in her hand, cooing about who is this "delicious," "yummy" young man. Rachel is confused as to why Greg is there, annoyed even, and Greg begs to be allowed to hang out with her, just for one day, so he can report back to his mother.
Because of course, it is a dying girl's responsibility to make the world okay for everyone in her midst, to be inspirational, to teach people how to love, how to live—even strangers who show up at her door on a charity mission. At one point he says, "Please appreciate how honest I just was." A valid answer to that statement would be, "No. I'm dying. I don't know you. Go away."
The whole point of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is that through his relationship with Rachel, Greg starts to live for someone other than himself. He and Earl decide to make a movie for Rachel, a tribute, and they hurry to finish it before she dies. Teenagers are self-involved. Learning to live in the world, to recognize that others exist, that your actions have consequences, is a part of growing up. Authors like Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton, and, more recently, John Green, all wrote books featuring teenagers who have to learn, sometimes painfully, that who they are has meaning, that they have to be responsible for themselves, and kind to others. "Me and Earl" wants to be a part of that genre without bothering to create characters that live.
Earl is another problem. Earl is black. For no other reason, apparently, he lives in squalor on a terrifying-looking street of derelict houses, overrun by weeds, and has a scary aggressive brother with a pit bull. Earl speaks with profanity-laced language, and constantly asks Greg about Rachel's "titties." Has Greg seen/touched the "titties" yet? Earl's language is completely unmotivated, coming from nowhere, and therefore represents a failure of the imagination when it comes to the character. Who is Earl? I'd actually like to know. How does he feel about the films they watch? What's his take? Later, when Greg has hurt Rachel's feelings, Earl steps up in a big way, showing that he has more common sense and more of an understanding of what is at stake for Rachel than Greg does. (This is also a cliché: the black sidekick understanding more about matters of the heart than the white lead.)
Greg's friendship with Rachel, despite its inauspicious beginning, does develop. They hang out. They talk. Or, rather, Greg talks, and she listens. He shows her the movies he made with Earl. If you were a teenage girl dying of cancer, with a group of supportive friends already, a terrified mother, and a unique artistic sensibility of your own (which we discover later), how would you like to spend your last months on earth? In "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," the "girl" of the title devotes the ending stretch of her life into making a young guy she never knew before feel good about himself and his artistic pursuits.
The glimpses we get of Earl and Greg's movies are the best part of the film. They're goofy and dumb, and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had a lot of fun, obviously, creating all of them. There are moments that flash with humor, like Greg filling out his college application in the voice of Werner Herzog. The camera-work is energetic, albeit a bit too artificial and showy (placing heads over on the side of the frame for no real reason). One scene, a tense argument between Rachel and Greg, plays out in one long take and it's the only time in the film when something real is actually allowed to exist, because in such a scene it is about the behavior, the silences between the words, the sense you get that two actors are actually creating something before your eyes. Such a scene, however, cannot save the whole.
That line mentioned earlier, "Please appreciate how honest I just was," sums up the systemic problems with "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." The film wants to be congratulated for being honest. But it isn't honest at all.