There have been a slew of similarly themed movies over the last few years that really try to get into the young-adult headset (and pocket): Now is Good, The Fault in our Stars, Spectacular Now, etc. Me and Earl isn’t a bad addition to the list, but it is closer to Submarine than its other coming-of-age-during-life-threatening-hardship relations.
What makes it work best are the performances of the younger cast, which are entertaining and well done. Thomas Mann (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and Oliva Cooke (Ouija) as the main characters play off each other well and stick to their characters and paths doggedly. Mann carries most of the weight, but absent Cooke, his performance wouldn’t have worked.
The adults in this story, however, are all caricatures, from Nick Offerman (Kings of Summer) and Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You) as Mann’s parents, to the cool teacher, played by Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Even more extreme was Molly Shannon’s (Life After Beth) turn as Cooke’s mother. Each of these, in different ways shattered the reality of the film for me, though Britton was the closest to reality.
Director Gomez-Rejon has an honest, but playful approach to life and his characters. It allows for some very inventive story-telling and effective moments. This isn’t too much of a surprise as he is best known for his TV work, including some of the best Glee episodes, a chunk of American Horror Story, and the Red Band Society pilot. Each of these has elements that appear in this movie and that help it rise above its weaker aspects.
The real challenge with this story is Andrews’ script, adapted from his own novel, rather than the direction or performances. It feels like a story told from an adult point of view rather than from the young adults who dominate the screen. I think there was an intrinsic mistake made: assuming if you keep most of the adults off-screen (like many of the films I’ve already referenced) that the story will then be from the primary characters point of view in style and sense. But there is an ineffable quality to writing from a YA point of view that this script misses. It doesn’t feel like a teenager wrote it, it feels like an adult is remembering it and that makes it ring just a bit false. it also attempts to be just a bit too clever about some aspects, but to discuss those would risk spoilers.
This is an entertaining film. It isn’t perfect and it will probably work better for adults than young adults (the 15-20 set). It is worth it for some of the performances and some of the humor, but it never really quite finds its feet nor makes its point entirely, though the ending minutes are really quite wonderful. It was a darling on the festival circuit this past year, but fell flat in wide distribution. Certainly the subject matter was going to be a challenge, but I think it has more to do with the script issues I raised. Kids can smell a fake, and this one had a whiff of that.