The presence of young ‘uns and a plot that seems to hark back to icky epics like The Fault in Our Stars suggest that this is a tawdry, teen-targeted drama.
But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s pic (drawn from a novel and screenplay by Jesse Andrews) is toughly funny and surprisingly unsentimental, with a seriously eccentric vein of film buffery which requires that audiences know more about cinema than those damn Twilights. Pittsburgh teen Greg (Thomas Mann) narrates his story and continually undercuts what’s to come, steering us away from expecting cheesy romantic clichés (and, pointedly, anything too like movies). Stressed about finishing school and, with help from ‘co-worker’ (ie. non-committal friend) Earl (R.J. Cyler), making short parodies of classic titles (A Sockwork Orange, Brew Velvet, Death in Tennis, Pooping Tom), Greg is half-forced by his academic parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to visit a schoolmate he hardly knows who’s, of course, just been diagnosed with cancer. After awkward beginnings and some self-sabotaging, he does indeed hit it off with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and while they become uneasy pals he, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews keep injecting heavy doses of irony to ensure that anything like love or virginity-losses or anything so obvious is kept well offscreen. While the adults are fine here (and TV-intensive, as Britton’s from American Horror Story, Offerman’s from Parks and Recreation, Greg’s teacher Jon Bernthal’s from The Walking Dead and Molly Shannon, as Rachel’s boozy Mom, is from Saturday Night Live and plenty more), this is really all about the kids, and they’re terrific. Mann’s Greg steals it as an ‘invisible’ young guy who uncomfortably realises, after a lifetime watching Werner Herzog outings (such as Aguirre, Wrath Of God), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and (subtly) George Romero’s Dead series, that life isn’t like the movies at all. Always a painful revelation.