The most recent film to attain the increasingly less rare sweep of both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ("Whiplash" did it last year and "Fruitvale Station" before that), "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" can sometimes feel like the ultimate "Sundance" movie: a cutesy tone applied to a tear-jerking story, with a hip, DIY aesthetic all supported by a soundtrack by Brian Eno. But if you can get past its quirks and narrative shortcomings, the film emerges as a charming and effective take on the coming-of-age teen melodrama.
The "Me" of the film's title is high school senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). Smart, awkward, and often too sarcastic for his own good, Greg has made it through high school by maintaining benignly friendly relations with his classmates while keeping them at a safe enough distance that he's protected from getting too involved. He's also an amateur filmmaker with a taste for the classics of art house cinema, a hobby he shares with his one and only friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), from the other side of town. Though they've been friends since childhood, that label is far too intimate for Greg, who instead refers to Earl as his "co-worker." Together, they spend their time creating and starring in homemade versions of their favorite films, refigured as juvenile parodies (sample titles include "A Sockwork Orange," "Senior-Citizen Kane," and "Pooping Tom").
Greg's comfortable existence is challenged when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who's recently been diagnosed with Leukemia. Though entered into reluctantly, it's through this relationship that Greg learns to open up and let down his walls. And thus the major problem with this particular story. As Greg grows out of his limited, self-centered worldview, it's hard not to see his token black friend and the girl dying of cancer as anything but devices to help his middle-class, white, male character learn to be a better person. They're not real people, merely characters playing a role in the narrative that is Greg's life.
Yes, there's truth in that idea: who among us hasn't at times (particularly when we're young) seen the people around us as side characters in a story in which we're the star? It's a perspective that (one hopes) we grow out of as we get older, but in grounding itself in Greg's point of view, the film often seems to contradict the message it's trying to send. Greg's realization doesn't come with any further insight into their characters; by film's end, we still know precious little about Rachel or Earl as people.
Cooke breathes enough life into Rachel that we care about what happens to her, and she and Mann have a sweet, appealing chemistry together. Cyler is equally good, handling Earl's transition from comic relief to sage advice-giver with ease. He prevents the character from devolving into a complete stereotype, even when the majority of his dialogue revolves around "demtitties." Alfonso Gomez-Rejon invests his film with formal playfulness, and his showy camerawork and wide angle compositions (gorgeously photographed by DP Chung Chung-hoon) bring a lively, almost hyperactive, energy to the story. There's much to admire, but I couldn't help wondering what kind of story could have been told if the film had managed to take its own advice, and broken out of its own limited worldview.