'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

Art imitates life imitating art in 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'
YOUNG MAN, MANCHILD, CHILD: Everyone is just trying to figure it all out in 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.'

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 Sundance—the biggest buy in the fest's history.

Dying Girl is never straight-up Fault in the Stars-Love Story backwash, despite the redemption of the troubled hero—the self-loathing, self-described "pasty faced" protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann).

It all begins when Greg's mom forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a neighbor girl fighting a losing battle with leukemia. Greg is half-heartedly distracted from his visits of mercy with the problem of an annoying crush on the prettiest girl in school (Kathleen C. Hughes). Meanwhile, African American sidekick Earl (RJ Cyler) follows the sidekick's ancient path—coolly endorsing the hero's decisions, right up until the key moment, where he can reveal the simple and honest emotions that our hero is too complex to understand.

The plot has the traditional young-adult lit problem of badly delineated actual-adults. Nick Offerman, as Greg's dad, and Joe Bernthal, as his favorite teacher, actually 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 wreak 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 it took the similar Michael Cera many movies to discover. A thick audio layer of '70s Brian Eno invokes cerebral romance; there's needle-drops within needle-drops, but it's still rare music. Chung Hou-Chung, of the original Oldboy, photographs the Pittsburgh locations so well that you'll think you've been some place 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.

To avoid the tang of soap opera, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon uses every distancing device in the book, from Robot Chicken-like animated interludes to subtitled chapter headings. The film-geekery is deep—beginning with a double portion of Harold and Maude references. (Just guess what Greg's family cat is called. Hint: "Stevens.") Greg is such an art-movie expert that he can imitate Werner Herzog's jungle breakdown speech in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams. And yet, he insists this is why he's a reject: it's as if he's never heard that film directors make good money and become idolized.

As a private joke between them, Greg and Earl have remade most of the Criterion Collection, using handheld cameras and camera phones. They film in vacant lots and use blunt-scissors to cut stop-mo animation. The pair's wittiest sweded film is Godard's Contempt (1963) starring a naked Barbie Bardot. The geekdom borders on ludicrous when Earl is sitting, captivated by the Scorsese narration track on Michael Powell's Tales of Hoffman (1951). That recently restored classic can't get a local theatrical release and yet Dying Girl did. Ever heard the expression, "Youth must be served, but do we have to encourage cannibalism?"

What's missing in this film is the shared experience of movie watching. Woody Allen could film himself going to the old Thalia theater in Manhattan. Belmondo could tenderly mutter "Bogie!" seeing a lobby card at a Paris screening room. But there's no place to go to the movies in this alterna-Pittsburgh. When Rachel and Greg finally share a movie, they watch it through a smartphone and a mini projector.

You have to wonder at such borrowed craft in a movie where every character's purpose is to turn a boy into a man—or at least into a college boy. Dying Girl quotes Truffaut, but the real Jeanne Moreau catalyzed events in Jules and Jim. As a (dying) girl, Rachel hardly participates in the creations except as a sad, ethereal muse. In one scene, Greg has to leave Rachel's side to go remake Apocalypse Now on a $5 budget. A really enterprising young director would have seen a bald bedridden girl and said, "Here's my Kurtz!"

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

PG-13; 105 Min.

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