One has to close one's eyes and really strain to imagine a film with more signposts of Sundance-darlinghood than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which opens Wednesday for the long holiday weekend at the Cedar Lee.
Endlessly verbal, cripplingly antisocial, white teenage protag? Check. Hip, dispassionate, straight-shootingly wise black best bud? Check. Slow-blossoming romance with cancer-ridden neighbor? Check good. Score abundant with ambient indie-rock up-and-comers? Stop-motion arts-and-crafts cutaways? Nick Offerman? A cool, self-aware title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? This is all so obvious it doesn't bear mentioning, right? The film's whole aura and 'tude communicate an indie preciousness that induces about as much skepticism off the bat as its mainstream analog, The Fault in Our Stars.
And yet: What a winner! Bursting with heart and wit, this one nails its sweet-and-sour tone with near-perfect balance.
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is compelled by his parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) to befriend his classmate Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) — in Greg's meticulous social taxonomy: Snobby Jewish Senior, Subgroup A — who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Rachel says thanks-but-no-thanks, but is won over by Greg's candor — "I'm only doing this because my mom's making me" — and they embark upon a "doomed" friendship which is, in fact, a delicate and intimate one.
Meantime, Greg and his "co-worker" Earl (R.J. Cyler) (Greg doesn't call anyone a friend for fear that he might lose one) who are obsessed with foreign and avant-garde cinema, continue a lifelong project of recreating classic films as shorts with altered titles: My Dinner with Andre the Giant, Senior Citizen Kane, Rosemary Baby Carrots. These are weirdly mesmerizing, lo-fi hybrids of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson.
The film's predictable trajectory (that Greg and Earl will make a film for Rachel) turns out not to be predictable at all, becoming the prism through which Greg's own insecurities are dramatized. Scriptwriter Jesse Andrews, who wrote the novel of the same name, and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who hasn't done much outside of TV (Glee, American Horror Story) both find new and occasionally stunning ways to communicate the innocence and power of high school friendship and high school love, and that — and this is what amounts to the film's thesis — we continue to learn about those we love even after they're gone.
Pittsburgh is on full display as a Rust Belt wonderland and serves as a resonant backdrop for three kids who both cling to and flee from (but always seem to acknowledge) stereotypes. Like all high school stories, M&E&TDG has your standard narrative checkpoints and framing devices — college essays, proms, etc. — and keyed-in performances from adult co-stars including Molly Shannon as Rachel's mom and The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal as the tatted history teacher. But count on a smarter, more pop-culturally advanced script (Pussy Riot reference in Minute 1? Wowza!) and a sweeter, if less sugary, romance.