Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, wr. Jesse Andrews, st. Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton
Whatever the problems with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - and there are many and plentiful - it is almost single-handedly saved from the keen edge of a bottomless trench by the charms and graces of the 21-year-old Olivia Cooke who plays the girl of the title. Cooke is relatively new on the scene, but she has made her presence felt in A&E's Psycho prequel series Bates Motel, as well as in a handful of low-key movies. But it's her Rachel Kushner in this film, director Gomez-Rejon's sophomore feature, that tempers the quirk and mitigates the tiresome narcissism on offer.
The "Me" of the film is Greg Gaines (Mann), whose voice it is that narrates his redemptive story. Greg bemoans the fact that he doesn't feel that he fits in anywhere, a dab hand as he is at ingratiating himself with the various clashing cliques at his Pittsburgh high school in order to fend off isolation. He's "colleagues" (for calling him a "friend" stresses him out apparently) with Earl (Cyler), with whom he makes whimsical Andersonian lo-fi film pastiches on his MacBook. On strict instructions from his mother (Britton), Greg is coerced into making friends with recently leukaemia-stricken Rachel, a girl in whom Cooke manages to perfectly convey the weary sense of worn-down injustice. What starts out as a bout of contrived charity soon blossoms, or at least is supposed to, into a genuine friendship, and soon Greg is sharing his movies - and Earl - with the dying girl.
The problem with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in that first pronoun. Greg's mother might be a touch overbearing (although anyone with parents will recognise that actually, she really isn't), and his dad, played with reduced trademark facial hair by Nick Offerman, may be a little too Polyphonic Spree for his liking, but he's hardly afflicted. Yet the film isn't so much about the girl - by far the most interesting character in this narrative - as it is concerned with Greg's plight of adolescent ennui and self-loathing. He doesn't deserve the affections and attention of a bright and beautiful girl, he deserves a royal kick in the pants. Yet the film trundles on with the tortured teenager plot-line, culminating in a scene of the most extraordinary arrogance in which Greg screens his latest movie (supposedly for Rachel but you wouldn't know it) on her hospital bed just as she's knocking on death's door.
While none of this is an issue with the performers per se, there's something unedifying about ill girls providing an emotional crutch for cocky boys. And while nothing here quite tops the surreal and suspiciously tasteless scene in The Fault In Our Stars that has a tourist-load of strangers applauding Hazel and Augustus' kiss at the Anne Frank House, the spectre of ego never seems far away. The film makes no concession to concealing the ultimate fate of its heroine, but you can't help but feel in spite of her illness, she still gets a pretty raw deal, and that's what turns this potentially compelling film about love and reliance and intimate camaraderie into an exercise in schoolboy vanity.