The big noise from this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," is a weaselly liar of a movie. It comes on full of self-deprecating bluster, professing no interest in jerking tears a la "The Fault in Our Stars," as it lays out its tale of a Pittsburgh high school senior's friendship with a fellow classmate diagnosed with cancer.
But gradually, as the narrator-protagonist learns to lower his emotional guard, the film lunges, sensitively, for the jugular.
This was a film, about a kid for whom cinema is all, destined to be launched in the company of movie geeks at a major festival. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's comedy-drama spurred a bidding war won by Fox Searchlight at Sundance, where it won the two top prizes. With an appealing perma-shrug and wry air of self-defeatism, Thomas Mann plays Greg, the "me" of the title. This half-abrasive, half-genial social misfit spends most of his free time remaking Criterion Collection titles such as "The 400 Blows" or "Mean Streets" as mini-spoofs with a relatively straight face.
Greg's best friend is surly yet supportive Earl, played by RJ Cyler. Their relationship is defined by nattering film references by the ton, interrupted by the occasional yearning for their school's females.
The dying girl is Rachel, portrayed by Olivia Cooke. Her sphinxlike way of tolerating Greg's supreme social awkwardness plausibly gives way to deep affection, even when the script makes you take that part on faith. Egged on by his mother (Connie Britton, perfect in an imperfectly pencil-sketched part), Greg is guilted into befriending Rachel after she receives her leukemia diagnosis, leaves school and confines herself largely to her room. Rachel's mother (Molly Shannon) copes with the situation with a glass of the nearest available whatever.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" deflects its own young adult best-seller cliches by carving up the story, as Andrews did in his rather raunchier 2012 novel, into chapters with titles such as: "The Part Where I Meet a Dying Girl" or "Day One of Doomed Friendship." If Bertolt Brecht entered the YA market, with help from the guys who wrote "(500) Days of Summer," then you'd have something like Gomez-Rejon's sophomore feature.
The supporting cast includes Nick Offerman as Greg's tenured sociology professor father, which is code for "home all the time, cooking." The location work in Pittsburgh, captured well and fluidly by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, is full of forgiving light and graceful, hill-dotted compositions.
The chief limitation of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is an old story: However touching, Cooke's Rachel is there mainly to prop up the sweetly messed-up young male lead, and then to quietly guide him toward adulthood. At the same time "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is often very funny, and many will weep big buckets of laughter-through-tears.
Gomez-Rejon has a seriously promising future; this film is shot in a hundred different styles, reflecting the sentimental and cinematic education of its protagonist.
Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: Thursday evening in limited release