Greg Gains, the young protagonist of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," isn't your usual teenage loner. He's remarkably social, actually, with connections to nearly every clique in his Pittsburgh high school: jocks, goths, even the theater kids. By keeping his acquaintances casual, Greg has established what he calls "citizenship in every nation," yet remains a man without a country.
That's an interesting character, possibly even a new one in the annals of teen movies. Greg, played by a convincingly vulnerable Thomas Mann ("Beautiful Creatures"), is a good kid with a creative streak -- he's a budding filmmaker -- but we can see the shallow adult he might become. Luckily, he has Earl (RJ Cyler), a tough kid from a broken home who helps Greg shoot movies and provides the occasional reality check. Greg's comfy little world gets a jolt when his perceptive mother (a very good Connie Britton) forces him to visit a classmate diagnosed with leukemia.
Olivia Cooke plays Rachel, the dying girl of the film's title. It's clear from the start that Rachel will break through Greg's jaundiced, flippant facade, but the problem with "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is that it strikes the same false pose as its hero. Much like last year's "The Fault in Our Stars," this movie insists that it isn't just another corny weeper -- but of course it is, and it feels like a bait-and-switch.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from Jesse Andrews' screenplay (based on his own novel), "Me and Earl" is often smart and funny, but even these qualities serve as distancing mechanisms. The film strains to avoid cliches by going into eccentricity overload. The critically approved soundtrack (heavy on Brian Eno), cool casting (Nick Offerman plays Greg's oddball father) and art-house in-jokes (Greg and Earl make spoof-movies with titles like "A Sockwork Orange") seem designed to separate this hip romance from a square old one like "Love Story." Really, though, what's the difference?
Whenever "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" dares to be sincere, it tends to work. More of those moments would have helped this heart-tugger hit its mark.