“I have no idea how to tell this story,” Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) says, staring at a computer screen, in the opening scene of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film suffers from a similar indecision. Ungainly and unsightly, Me and Earl unites a mélange of teen-film tropes—the high school comedy, teen-cancer melodrama, and joint coming-of-age friendship and romance—into a narrative overburdened with cultural references and framing devices, and undermined by a lack of attention to character. The film’s flurry of whip-pans, mixed-media gags, and wide shots filmed from surveillance angles only serve to obfuscate its confounding protagonist and one-note supporting cast.
Greg, the film’s protagonist and fitful narrator, avows that he’s survived high school by ingratiating himself with every last sub-segment of the school’s social strata, though he’s constantly claiming to be friendless and helplessly awkward. Despite his disaffection, Greg belies a passion for foreign art-house cinema, handed down to him by his father (Nick Offerman), a kimono-wearing sociology professor and connoisseur of exotic foods. Greg spends his free time producing parodies of Criterion Collection fare (a Rashomon spoof called Mono Rash) with his black best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), who Greg refers to as a “business partner” as part of a steadfast effort to avoid emotional intimacy. That endeavor is hindered by his mother (Connie Britton), who mandates that Greg spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. Upon his first visit to Rachel’s home, Greg and Rachel interact with a modest staircase separating them. It’s shot to look as imposing as the Odessa steps, suggesting the effort Greg will have to make to shed his solipsism and relate to his peers.
For a while, Me and Earl’s cancer plot proves a durable device, heightening the discomfort both Greg and Rachel feel about their arranged friendship. Gomez-Rejon has an easy way with young actors (all of them play stereotypes of some sort, but they’re imbued with a certain soul and idiosyncrasy), and early scenes featuring all of the titular characters successfully illustrate how human chemistry can be coaxed from stilted interactions into something more organic. Jesse Andrews’s script, though, sends Greg scurrying through myriad dead-end subplots, including a drug trip allegedly induced by a teacher’s pot-laced thermos of pho and a few baffling interactions with the school’s “Hot Girl” (Katherine C. Hughes), who’s either Rachel’s best friend or another potential love interest for Greg, depending on the scene. Molly Shannon, as Rachel’s mother, occasionally pops up with a glass of wine in her hand, but this visual coding never amounts to anything.
Eventually, the film’s fondness for distraction sends it tumbling into flat characterizations and emotional incoherence. Rachel’s condition worsens, foisting Greg into overheated turmoil as she becomes increasingly defined as a sickly viewer of Greg’s films. Earl fares more poorly: The film has uneasy fun with his use of “titties” as a catchphrase and shorthand references to his disadvantaged household, and then asks him to become the knight that will rescue Greg from his lapse into solipsism. Earl and the dying girl are Greg’s mature, enlightened counterparts, but Andrews and Gomez-Rejon leave the characters high and dry, ultimately rendering them hollow bystanders to Greg’s emotional breakdown. In the film’s final shot, Greg looks through Rachel’s bedroom, revealing wall drawings and elaborate artworks he’d never noticed before. The idea, in the filmmakers’ eyes, seems to be to honor the legacy every artist leaves behind, but you’ll be forgiven for wondering why the film waited so long to give Rachel any outside interests, or what kind of friend Greg is for having never asked about them. Me and Earl curdles into a breed of solipsism that’s uglier than the one it begins with.