Authenticity is a slippery substance—at the movies, anyway. You can't manufacture it. It emerges from the process of filmmaking, somewhere in that unknowable alchemy of collaborative art.
A sense of authenticity is key to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, an indie sensation slowly rolling across the country on the strength of two Sundance prizes and strong word-of-mouth. Yes, it's another teen-cancer weepie. But it's also a mischievously meta coming-of-age comedy, steeped in millennial pop-culture sensibilities. Running those two stories in parallel requires the transmission of authentic human feelings and relationships if we're going to believe a word of it.
The set-up: High-school misfits Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) have been best friends since kindergarten, although they prefer to call themselves coworkers. Their weird, shared passion is making goofball digital shorts of their favorite art films—My Dinner with Andre the Giant, A Sockwork Orange, Monorash.
Greg and Earl's high-school survival strategy—to dodge and weave among the cliques—is upended when they befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. What happens from here provides the dramatic arc, but the film's real delights are in the details.
The relationships among Greg, Earl and Rachel are so strange and specific that they feel entirely authentic. This isn't a love story, and Greg and Earl's friendship is so unsentimental that it's almost impersonal. The bonds among the three characters are rooted in humor, unspoken empathy and the kind of ferocious loyalty that blooms only in high school.
Each of the three young leads works in a different key, delivering performances that amplify the script's authenticity. The dialogue is witty but never forced (I'm looking at you, Juno) and often laugh-out-loud funny. Earl's easygoing one-liners are little haiku of mellow gold.
It's the adults that often come across as awkward and self-conscious. As Rachel's boozy mom, Molly Shannon oversells her bit, and Jon Bernthal's hipster history teacher seems teleported in from a phonier movie. Thankfully, the grown-ups are largely in the background, and when the young people are on screen, everything hums.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon may have trouble keeping the authenticity meter steady throughout, but he knows how to move a camera around. A declared Scorsese disciple, he supercharges otherwise standard scenes with bold compositions. The climactic sequence is a dazzler—a paean to the enduring power of light projected onscreen.
Sad and joyous at the same time, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl manages a delicate tone all its own. The grown-ups are a bit screwy, but the kids are all right.This article appeared in print with the headline "Revel in the Details."