by Richard von Busack
Something innocent and sweet survives in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to balance out a manipulative, conniving streak so effective that Fox Searchlight paid $12 million for the film at the Sundance Film Festival—the biggest buy in the fest’s history.
Me and Earl is never straight-up The Fault in Our Stars/Love Story backwash, despite the redemption of the troubled hero, the self-loathing, self-described “pasty-faced” protagonist Greg (Thomas Mann). Greg’s mom forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a neighbor fighting a losing battle with leukemia. Greg is distracted from his visits of mercy by an annoying crush on Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), the prettiest girl in school.
Meanwhile, African-American sidekick Earl (RJ Cyler) follows the sidekick’s ancient path. He coolly endorses the hero’s decisions, right up until the key moment when he, the sidekick, can reveal the simple, honest emotions that our hero is too complex to understand.
The plot has the traditional young-adult-lit problem of badly delineated actual adults. Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) and Mr. McCarthy, Greg’s favorite teacher, seem to be the same character. (The latter has tattoos—that’s how you can tell the difference.) It’s a tribute to Molly Shannon’s wry subtleties that she can wring so much emotion out of the one-note role of Rachel’s drunken mom.
The young actors, especially the sweet, sad Cooke, don’t overdo it. Mann brings in a tough, selfish streak that took Michael Cera many movies to discover.
Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, of the original Oldboy, films the Pittsburgh locations so well that you think you’ve been someplace exotic when you leave. The Vertigo references don’t seem in vain when you see the precipitous streets, the noble old Victorian houses and a three-story bookshop with steep, bell-tower-like steps.