In adapting his novel for the screen, Jesse Andrews retains the present-day Pittsburgh setting, but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film (a follow-up to his 2014 debut, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) is a throwback in most every other respect—and that isn’t always an asset, since it also traffics in the reductive class and gender politics of an earlier era.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a teenage misfit who complains a lot for a guy who has it pretty good, but he wouldn’t be a true adolescent if he didn’t. His best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), who is poor, and new friend, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has leukemia, have more reasons to bitch (Molly Shannon, who plays Rachel’s mom, is also a lush). If that isn’t in the laconic Earl’s nature, Rachel has a voice, and she uses it to express her fears, but Greg is the narrator, and everything unfolds from his perspective. It’s the point of the film, but it’s also what makes it so frustrating.
On the one hand, the actors’ chemistry never feels forced. On the other, the film privileges Greg in every way. He learns from his less fortunate friends, but they remain less fortunate. That may also be the point, but it leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste, especially in light of the inspired set-pieces (many involving Nick Offerman as Greg’s eccentric dad) and affecting moments (many involving Cooke, the Norman Bates-besotted Brit from A&E’s Bates Motel).
Greg gets to know Rachel when his do-gooder mom (Connie Britton, bringing some Tammy Taylor gravitas to the proceedings) recommends he keep her company while she undergoes chemotherapy. Refreshingly, a Fault in Our Stars love affair fails to materialize, and Gomez-Rejon never plays Rachel’s illness for laughs, but she becomes more of an observer than a participant in the filmmaking project of Greg and Earl, who remake art-house classics using the cheapest means possible. Not until late in the game does Greg come to realize that Rachel is a truer artist than he will ever be.
The film itself is also a work of art. On the surface, it privileges a middle-class white guy, but behind the scenes, it’s the product of a Mexican American filmmaker who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home and the ingenious South Korean cinematographer who helped to make the work of Park Chan-wook world famous, from the pulsing reds and inky blacks of Lady Vengeance to the poisonous greens and blues of Stoker. Aided by Brian Eno and Nico Muhy’s dreamlike score, Chung Chung-hoon invests ordinary teenage bedrooms and suburban high-school cafeterias with a magic and mystery that don’t disguise the film’s shortcomings--but sure make them easier to forgive.