The Fault in Their Quirks: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" too preciously cute for its own good

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) 
104 min., rated PG-13.

Premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and earning a standing ovation, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" feels as if it were created in a Sundance Film Festival Darling lab. Audiences were so taken with the film that it even became the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Done right, a little independent film can be a "Little Miss Sunshine" or a "Juno," but hyperbolic praise like "instant classic" for this one is a gross overstatement. "'The Fault in Our Stars' meets 'Be Kind Rewind' by way of Wes Anderson" must have been the logline for this coming-of-ager about leukemia and love for filmmaking, but as directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2014's surprisingly effective "The Town That Dreaded Sundown") and adapted to the screen by Jesse Andrews from his 2012 novel, it isn't all that to deserve all of the critical backflips. There are things to like about it, but it's just too precious and cute for its own good.

The "me" of the title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a depressive, self-hating high school senior who's reluctant to apply to colleges and stays anonymous so he doesn't have to get close to anyone in any single clique. The closest he has to a friend without actually calling him his friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), a black teen living in a rough neighborhood. Greg and Earl are actually "co-workers," having made together over forty-two movies, all of which are spoofs of classic films that they have watched over the years in the office of his history teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). When class acquaintance Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother (Connie Britton) urges him to spend time with her and make a difference in someone's life. Rachel doesn't want Greg to pity her, but as soon as their offbeat senses of humor mesh, a friendship forms. It's also something that Greg makes Rachel the first person to ever see the films he's made with Earl, and the two aspiring filmmakers decide to make a movie just for Rachel once she begins her cancer treatment. Will the story end in love conquering all before it ends in tragedy?

Whimsical, droll and flippantly humored, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" so adamantly and transparently wants to be liked and congratulated, waving its hands at you from the screen so early and often that it ends up being a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Almost too self-consciously quirky and twee by a half to the point of annoyance, the film limits our emotional engagement from the very beginning with the frustrating Greg who can't seem to locate any sincerity or make any decisions for himself. At the same time, the film at least recognizes the self-involvement and angst of teenagers because Greg squarely fits into the "Me Me Me Generation." Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has already introduced himself as a promising filmmaker worth keeping an eye on with his remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown." His follow-up is just as assuredly made with fluid cinematography, from all of the Wes Anderson-ish whip pans and a dolly shot down the school cafeteria, to some of the precise details. Stop-motion animation interludes with a moose stomping on a chipmunk whenever high school looker Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) approaches Greg is vaguely amusing the first time, and there is one achingly powerful scene, shot in a single take in Rachel's bedroom after she has undergone her treatment. Chock-full of filmmaking aesthetic choices that will make movie geeks swoon, the film's style is so hopped up on quirky pills that it begins to feel cookie-cutter rather than inventive as was intended. Greg's unreliable voice-over narration and intertitles of Greg and Rachel's "doomed friendship" only serve to pat the film on its back for its own meta cleverness. Being self-aware and having the narrator comment on how we should lower our expectations about the romance we're supposed to invest in requires a certain skill. "So if this was a touching, romantic story, our eyes would meet and suddenly we'd be furiously making out with the fury of a thousand suns. But this isn't a touching romantic story," Greg quips. How it's handled here is cloying and emotionally manipulative. 

If Thomas Mann was more sensitive in 2012's otherwise raucous "Project X," he gets to be more naturalistic in the lead here as the not-so-likable Greg. When he directly talks to Rachel, it's only because his mom makes him to start hanging out with her and he lets Rachel know that. However, Mann does acquit himself quite well in playing a character who's not easy to warm up to at the start. Rachel, "the dying girl" of the title, is a sweet girl and not only by default because she's sick. As a teenage girl confronting her mortality too early in her life, Olivia Cooke (2014's "Ouija") is charming, exuding a lovely radiance and intelligence that's hard to resist. Initially, it's easy to see how the cynical viewer might view Rachel as a bit of a plot device than an actual character, but as her friendship with Greg grows, there are enough nuances in Rachel to count. Earl is the voice of reason, even if he says "titties" more than one needs to hear, and it's a testament to RJ Cyler's promise in his acting debut that his sidekick is much more likable than protagonist Greg. The adult actors get to play up the quirk quotient as if they're each playing in a different cartoonish homage to the John Hughes movies of the '80s. Within the one-note parameters of their poorly defined roles, Connie Britton and the perpetually deadpan Nick Offerman have their amusing moments as Greg's parentsshe's intrusive in her son's life but loves him, and he walks around the house in his bathrobe, either holding the family cat or offering strange delicacies. Molly Shannon is a bit better, both funny and affecting as Rachel's overly touchy lush of a mother Denise, who always opens the door with a drink in her hand, possibly as her own way of coping, and oddly calls Greg "yummy." Jon Bernthal, on the other hand, finds more recognizable humanity and depth as Greg and Earl's favorite teacher Mr. McCarthy, whose Vietnamese noodle soup may or may not give his two students an accidental high.

Who doesn't love a coming-of-ager that can still feel sweet and fresh? With an overwhelming quirkiness being the first half's albatross, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" at least starts to work better in chunks as it finally settles down and comes down to earth. Shot in Pittsburgh, the film makes terrific use of the working-class milieu and finds its own look even after the vastly superior Pittsburgh-set "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Each of the awesomely "stupider" titles and snippets of Greg and Earl's horrible remade movies are clever and often earn the film's most inspired laughs. From everything in the Criterion collection, they knock off classic films with "A Sockwork Orange," "2:58 P.M. Cowboy," "Pooping Tom" and "Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-Ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn." Finally, the film allows the viewer to let down his or her guard by finishing with deeply felt emotion and ends up having an earnest, endearing heart. Not without its final grace notes and quick-witted amusements, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is still hardly the unmistakable crowd-pleaser that nearly everyone is calling it. Its head is too far up its own arse for that.

Grade: C +