A likeable young cast makes the most out of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a remarkably uninventive entry in the clichéd teenager-with-leukemia genre (does high school actually cause cancer?). The movie would you believe that it’s more authentic than other entries in the series, such as “The Fault in Our Star,” because there’s no love story. That’s a ruse. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has more than enough other weapons in its arsenal to constantly remind that this is a movie, and a manipulative one at that.
The script, by Jesse Andrews, adapting his own young adult novel, does provide enjoyable, if not always believably adolescent, dialogue, but is so encumbered by clichés that it’s absolutely impossible to forget you’re watching a movie. The characters are all cardboard archetypes straight from central casting. We have the Nebishy Narrator, the Edgy Sick Girl and the Cool Black Sidekick and the Eccentric Parents.
Thomas Mann (“Project X,” “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Beautiful Creatures”) plays Greg, the main character and voice-over narrator. Greg tries to blend in anonymously, avoiding deep relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield of teenage life. He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), his partner in filming parodies of classic movies, as a “co-worker” rather than a best friend. Greg and Earl avoid the school cafeteria, where all cliques precariously join every day, in favor of eating in the office of Cool Teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal of “The Walking Dead”) where they watch an unlikely assortment of vintage movies, including, apparently the collected works of mad German director Werner Herzog.
Greg’s carefully managed life is rocked when his mother (Connie Britton) guilts him into spending time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke of “Ouija” and “Bates Motel”), a classmate he does not know well, but who has been recently diagnosed with leukemia. Despite the characters’ initial reluctance to deal with each other, they (inevitably) become close friends. The one, and perhaps only, cliché the story sidesteps is that they don’t fall in love. Rachel does seem drawn to Greg’s self-deprecating humor, although to the audience he often comes off as self-absorbed and whiny.
The entire movie is narrated by Greg, a questionable device in and of itself. It’s long been a prevailing view that voice-over narration is inherently uncinematic, though it’s been essential in some movies (“Farewell, My Lovely,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Sunset Boulevard” come to mind). Here the problem is that Greg lies to us, though there will be no specific spoiler. Suffice it to say it involves a major plot point and the viewer would be forgiven for wanting to throw things at the screen.
Molly Shannon, as Rachel’s mother, is in an especially precarious position. The character, an alcoholic, single mother abandoned years ago by her husband, should be tragic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story”) and writer Andrews have her boozily coming on to Greg and eventually Earl in creepy scenes that seem like Axe commercial outtakes.
Gomez-Rejon’s technique is right out of “Directing Indies for Dummies.” A former second unit director for Martin Scorsese and Inarritu among others before making his own directorial debut with the reboot of the horror movie “The Town that Dreaded Sundown,” Gomez-Rejon almost appears to be imitating indies here. Examples include: holding a long, contrived two-shot during an awkward dialogue scene without cutting, clumsy editing, deliberately drab photography and in-jokes the audience won’t even notice, let alone get. Gomez-Rejon at least eschews the standard indie sad “plink-plink-plunk” piano solos in favor of new music by Brian Eno.
The stop motion animated interludes which frequently punctuate the movie are distracting, amateurish and accomplish little other than reminding the audience they’re watching a movie. The references to Greg and Earl’s collected works include film clips (sometimes amusing but usually irrelevant) and homemade posters and DVD case art. The clip of “A Sockwork Orange” is admittedly amusing. The filmmakers have clearly put a great deal of thought to these, more than the audience will. There is a complete list in the end credits for the viewer who wants in on the joke. Selected titles include: “Anatomy of a Burger,” “Crouching Housecat, Hidden Housecat,” “Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind” and “My Dinner With Andre the Giant.” After that do you really need to know that the screensaver on Greg’s computer is a photograph of Academy Award®-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker?
Were it not for some genuinely funny scenes along the way, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” would be far less watchable than it is. As it is, as an entry in the teenager-with-leukemia genre, it offers some rewards, while never letting you forget you’re watching a movie.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is currently playing at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, and the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.