“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” turns teen movie cliches on their head

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Greg, the teenage boy in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” skates across the surface of high school life without causing a ripple.

ame&earlHe is on nodding terms with all the cliques, but is a party of one.

He even calls his best friend Earl – collaborator on the short films they’ve been making since they were kids – his “co-worker.”

But when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate diagnosed with leukemia and whom he hardly knows, the experience deepens his worldview even as it darkens it.

While it confirms his theory that the more involved you become with others the greater the chance of hurting them or yourself, it also works like chemotherapy, introducing empathy into his life drip by drip.

This witty indie is emotionally touching without being maudlin or sentimental and is the wry antidote to the similarly themed tear-jerker “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Its combines oddly shaped set pieces and an off-beat style. There are chapter headings; voice overs; clips from classic art house films like “Aguirre: Wrath of God”; short films made by Greg and Earl; a working class Pittsburgh setting; and Greg, the shaggy-haired, rubber-faced protagonist in a “Nosferatu” t-shirt – the “Me” of the title – played by Thomas Mann.

RJ Cyler is the no-nonsense Earl and the dying girl is played by Olivia Cooke, who spends most of the film trying to make the socially awkward Greg feel better about himself. Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal, of “The Walking Dead” offer adult supervision, of a sort.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” and was second unit director on “Argo” and “Babel.” “Me and Earl,” which won the Grand Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival, may have its roots in his work on the teen cancer series “Red Band Society.” It was adapted by Jesse Andrews from his book.

While it flirts on teen movie genre clichés – “accidental” drug scene, bullies, cute popular girl – it also turns them on their head. It’s lasting power and real value is in Greg’s discovery that life is a team sport and others run interference for us, and we for them, in ways we don’t realize.

*** Three stars

With Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes. Proeuced by Jeremy Dawson, Dan Fogelman, Steven M. Rales.

Written by Jesse Andrews. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

PG 13; sexual content, drug reference, language.

Approximate running time: 105 minutes.

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