“Teen cancer dramedy” has become a niche subgenre in recent years thanks largely to John Green, king of mixing melodrama and quasi-existentialism to produce a mainstream alternative to Good Philosophical Literature, and his contemporaries. Me & Earl & The Dying Girl, while based on a novel, is nothing like John Green’s work and the film adaptations of said mediocre novels. Firstly: it’s far more intelligently constructed. Green’s books typically feature one strong cultural reference that the characters obsess over for 300 pages (see Alan Ginsberg in The Fault in Our Stars, Woody Guthrie in Paper Towns, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Looking for Alaska). Me & Earl, however, has a head-spinningly good cinematic reference pool, with Herzog, Godard, Kurosawa and Truffaut nodded to in the opening 10 minutes alone. Secondly: it’s significantly more realistic and earthy in its portrayal of high school and its inhabitants. Narrator Greg (Thomas Mann) shares few traits with the moaning, self-obsessed, lyrical heroes of a Green book. The high school halls (colour-drained to a dystopian level) aren’t explored in much depth, but what diversions there are into stereotype and labelling is illustrated with stop-motion cutaways. There is no romance- none that is spelt out, at least- and the “Dying Girl” in question, played by the quietly likeable Olivia Cooke, is largely unremarkable and never idolised as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the director’s long-gone adolescent dreams, as one would expect from a film advertised as “From The Studio That Brought You (500) Days of Summer” (FYI Fox are also responsible for Avatar, X-Men and the original Star Wars trilogy. So I guess Me & Earl must be good.)
The whole “cinematic homage” side of the film is delightful beyond words (unlike Michel Gondry’s miscalculated 2008 film Be Kind Rewind, the films Greg and his friend Earl remake are actual classics), but it also works superbly as a poem on art’s influence on friendship when such form is required of it. The final act keeps up the energy that has been established earlier on as the expected “sad stuff” rears its not-as-ugly-as-it-could’ve-been head, and this pays off. Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal and- in a small but noteworthy role- Victorious alum Matt Bennett do good background work, and RJ Cycler is underused but intermittently fun as Earl, but it’s Mann and Cooke who pull the various threads together, into a quilt of quirky beauty. As a film focused on the desperation to escape labelling and categorisation, it would seem unfair to label or categorise Me & Earl. Just this: It’s a film, and it’s really good.