ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is the latest entry in my favorite cinematic genre: Teen Movie; Subcategory: Quirky Misfits. On balance, it's a respectable entry in the field. All the familiar tropes are here, deployed with a wry humor that feels knowing rather than derivative. There are the clueless parents, the inspiring teacher, the underlying conviction that the stakes couldn't possibly be higher. The first-person narration, explained away as a college admissions essay. And—most importantly—the band of loveable outcasts who teach each other Valuable Life Lessons. Me and Earl is self-aware and witty, and the coming-of-age tale at its nougaty center is good-hearted and enjoyable, despite a few major missteps.
As the film opens, Greg (Thomas Mann) gives us the obligatory walking tour of his high school, introducing the various social groups that he's learned to navigate while remaining on the periphery, never making a ripple. He's the kid everyone vaguely likes but no one really knows, and that's how he likes it. With his only friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), he spends his lunch periods watching Werner Herzog movies in his history teacher's office, and his spare time making movie spoofs (A Sockwork Orange). When his overbearing mom forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who's recently been diagnosed with leukemia, it's the beginning of Greg learning how to actually connect with another human being.
But therein lies Me and Earl's major malfunction: We never really get to know Rachel. She's a cute bald girl who teaches Greg how to be a friend, encourages him to go to college, and... doesn't do much else. She doesn't talk much; as she goes through chemo, the treatment increasingly causes her to retreat into herself. (There's an obvious comparison here between Me and Earl and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Not because they're both teen cancer movies, but because TFiOS manages to be a teen cancer movie with a profoundly, fully realized female lead, while Rachel in Me and Earl might as well be played by a Hang in There Kitty poster.)
Jesse Andrews, whose first book is the YA novel that Me and Earl is based on, also wrote the screenplay, and it's his first time at that, too. All that inexperience results in a film that's strong on comedic voice but weak on pacing and character development. There's little subtlety to the way the story unfolds; the mechanics of the plot are too close to the surface, occasionally breaching like a clumsy whale.
At 105 minutes, Me and Earl is the rare movie that actually feels too short—I would've gladly sat through another half an hour if it meant more character depth, more insight into these relationships. There's so much that's almost here: How we don't realize the impact we have on other people. How caring about people is worth it, even if you end up getting hurt. Greg keeps people at arm's length because he doesn't believe anyone could possibly like the "real" him—it's your basic teenaged low-self-esteem trip. But as played by the charismatic Mann, Greg is an affable, hyper-articulate kid whose social blunders can't erase his basic likeability. Too bad we don't spend enough time with him to really understand why he's so convinced he's fundamentally unloveable, or enough time with Rachel to understand why their relationship is so transformative.