Review: Sundance hit ‘Me and Earl…’ melds tragedy with wit

If you’ve heard of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” already, it’s probably because it had the unique misfortune of being the favorite of many at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it also won the top prizes. Sometimes when those films finally hit theaters, you get a “Whiplash.” Other times you’re just left wondering what the Sundance altitude has done to everyone’s judgment.

In this case, there is a bit of a backlash brewing as folks see it closer to sea level and react to the early festival hype. But perhaps no movie this precious could live up to that standard. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” might not be a perfect film, but it is small, earnest, occasionally witty and even affecting. It is flawed, yes, but forgivable.

Set in Pittsburgh, the city where all misfit youths come of age (see: “Wonder Boys,” ”The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” ”Adventureland,” etc.), and based on a book of the same name, this is the tale of a high school senior who befriends a girl dying of leukemia.

Greg (Thomas Mann), the “me” in question, is introduced as he’s trying to begin writing the story of the movie we’re about to see. He’s the type of milquetoast nice guy who’d rather be acquaintances with everyone and friends with no one. He eats in his tattooed teacher’s (Jon Bernthal) office to avoid the social awkwardness of the lunchroom. His bedroom is adorned with a bookshelf of vintage cameras and a “(400) Blows” poster. He wears a “Nosferatu” t-shirt regularly and he makes films with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler).

These aren’t just any films, though. They’re whimsical, puny takes on a host of Criterion Collection approved titles (i.e. “Mono Rash,” ”The (400) Bros,” ”The Seven Seals,” ”Sockwork Orange”). Greg and Earl are Very Interesting, the movie shouts at every opportunity, right down to the Brian Eno songs underscoring the most memorable moments. Was anyone ever this precocious?

Greg is both the film’s narrator and protagonist, which could be perceived as the film’s greatest mistake. The girl, Rachel, played by the beguiling Olivia Cooke (a cross between Dakota Fanning and Rachel McAdams in both demeanor and looks), is a prop in the story of Greg’s (debatable) emotional maturation. While Rachel isn’t a doormat, she also isn’t really given much to do. Dry and witty, she has emotional ups and downs throughout her disease, a few reflections on dying and some maddening monologues about how she isn’t beautiful. But otherwise, she’s there to serve Greg and wait for the movie that he’s supposed to make for her.

“Me and Earl…” also borrows more than it creates. It preys on our affection for those classic films, not just in referencing them, but also by lacing the score with the music from “Vertigo,” ”The Tales of Hoffman” and others. That might be perceived as unearned emotional currency by some, and perhaps it is. But, “Me and Earl…” is also telling a story from the point of view of a selfish high school kid. Of course, he’d score his own minor meltdown to “Vertigo” and frame a friend’s disease around what it means for his own trajectory. At least there is no weepy romance here.

The filmmaking from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” ”American Horror Story”) is hyper-stylized and a bit wonky at times, with a few odd security camera angles thrown into the mix. But it’s also energetic and mostly fun to watch, especially the glimpses of their “awful” movies.

Still, just when you think you’ve possibly passed through this sad tale without a sniffle or a true emotional connection, the film reminds you that sometimes all you need is “The Big Ship” and a pair of soulful, welling eyes to turn you into a puddle.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements.” Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

___

MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

___

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

Review: Sundance hit ‘Me and Earl…’ melds tragedy with wit