Last year, the weepy teen romance The Fault in Our Stars was the year’s most profitable film. The adaptation of the best-selling John Green novel about cancer-stricken kids in love earned over $300 million on a budget of just $12 million. For obvious and very sad reasons (spoiler alert!), there will be no The Fault in Our Stars 2. But fans of heartbreaking high school drama shouldn’t worry. At this week’s Sundance Film Festival, Hollywood got the next best thing: director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
In the festival’s biggest multimillion dollar sale so far, the film was purchased by Fox Searchlight. It’s easy to see why: Like TFIOS, Earl is based on a tear-jerking novel about cancer (in Earl's case, written by newcomer Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the movie's screenplay.) And it’s about the tender friendship between two misfit teens who develop a mostly chaste sort of love for each other. Enormously charming actor Thomas Mann breaks through as the awkward, whip-smart teen Greg, whose mother makes him hang out with “the dying girl” Rachel, an oddball dying of leukemia, played by British actress Olivia Cooke.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also very much its own film: It’s both more comedic and less romantic than TFIOS. The boy and girl stay “just friends” — and its Pittsburgh setting gives the film its own specific grit and texture. (TFIOS was actually shot in Pittsburgh too, but the city was only a vague stand-in for Indiana.) Gomez-Rejon is a stylish, brash filmmaker who’s worked under Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu as an assistant and their influence shows — in his restless, confident camera movement and gorgeously composed shots, but also in the film’s endless and hysterical series of film references, which riff on everything from Mean Streets to Raging Bull. In a running gag, Greg and his pal Earl (R.J. Cyler) make intentionally dumb adaptations of classic films, from the sunny, daytime comedy 2:48PM Cowboy (instead of Midnight Cowboy) to the ludicrous puppet drama Sockwork Orange (instead of Clockwork Orange) to Senior Citizen Kane.
The film doesn’t have the built-in fan base of John Green’s novels, but there’s good reason for optimism: So far, the movie has played to big laughs and standing, weeping ovations at Sundance, while reviews have been strong, across the board. Mann, Cooke, and Cyler each shine with breakout star potential and Gomez-Rejon was instantly anointed one of independent film’s most exciting young directors. For fans wishing against all hope for a TFIOS sequel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl might be the next best thing.