An irresistible, life-affirming tearjerker elevated by exceptional performances.
The Fault in Our Stars
Based on the wildly popular John Greene novel, The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, has a can’t-fail combination of gifted, pretty, rising young stars and an invincibly sympathetic, sob-inducing story of big dreams and heartache that will, without a doubt, draw piles and piles of money into the laps of all involved in the production. Many a skeptic cinephile will find themselves approaching the film with folded arms, expecting a manipulative tearjerker expertly designed to appeal to the teen idol masses. The film is, in fact, every bit a product of the Hollywood cheese factory, but it offers much more than that; it’s bravely earnest, self-aware, crafted with care, and undeniably life-affirming.
“Depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.” It’s biting remarks like these, spoken by Shailene Woodley as plucky 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Grace, that elevate the film high above manufactured YA mediocrity. Hazel’s lived with metastatic thyroid cancer (which mostly affects her lungs) for the larger part of her life, dragging around an oxygen tank with a tube fed to her nose at all times. She refuses to pity herself, a quality so endearing it isn’t fair. She’s mostly concerned with how her imminent fate will affect her sweet parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) than she is afraid of leaving this world. At once cynical and compassionate, witty and self-deprecating, Hazel Grace is irresistible.
Hazel acquires a persistent admirer at a cancer support group named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a brazen, unstoppably confident young man who pops cigarettes in his mouth but never lights them. Augustus (Gus for short), though in remission, lost a leg to disease, so he keeps the thing that could kill him hanging from his lips, but never gives it the power to do its dirty work. “A metaphor,” he proudly calls the strange habit through an impish grin. Yes, Gus should be incredibly annoying, but he’s not. This is because Elgort, like Woodley, is so charismatic you’ll pretty much buy whatever he’s selling, including an unlit cigarette.
A problem with most young actors is that they tend to be given dialogue that their intellect isn’t mature enough to support. They say all these smart, insightful things, but you can see on their face that they frankly don’t fully understand the weight of what they’re talking about. Woodley and Elgort are gifted in that they exude intelligence, thoughtfulness, and savvy, making smart dialogue sound smart, the corniest lines sound terribly romantic and natural.
Shortly after they meet at the support group, Hazel asks Gus why he’s staring at her. He answers: “Because you’re beautiful.” Typing that made me cringe. But watching the scene unfold, you see the utter conviction and sincerity in Elgort’s eyes, Woodley lets out a small, nervous laugh, and amazingly…you smile. They’ve got you, those damn kids. Then, as Gus turns to say goodbye to another girl from the group, Woodley almost inaudibly mutters, “…I’m not beautiful.” Perfect timing. The heart melts.
For a while, Hazel and Gus swirl around each other in a whirlwind teen fantasy, flirting, texting, and charming each other to pieces. When Hazel is invited to Amsterdam by Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), her favorite author, she’s overwhelmed with excitement, but her dream escapes her when her mom, full of regret, breaks the news that they simply don’t have enough money to make the trip. Dern is absolutely wonderful, filling every frame she occupies with love and acceptance. Hazel’s dream is saved by Gus, who uses his last wish (granted by the Genie wish foundation) to fly them to Amsterdam where they indeed meet the famed author. The interaction is an unexpectedly intense watershed moment, with the young actors playing beautifully off of the seasoned Dafoe.
Woodley’s role is a colorful one, covering a wide spectrum of emotions, and she wears every iota of them on her face. She can make you laugh with a simple raised eyebrow, or make you sob with a subtle quiver of the lip. Her talent is beyond her years, which is fitting, as Hazel is forced to face more trauma before her 18th year than most people do in a lifetime. The physical torment endured by Hazel due to her condition are conveyed excellently, and the danger of her lungs failing is always lingering in the back of your mind, defining the stakes.
Elgort is suave and super-cool as you’d expect, but his looks are pleasantly pedestrian; he’s handsome no doubt, but he also looks like your everyday teen with his puffy Nikes and thrift store leather jackets. When he leans in and says, “I’m in love with you, Hazel Grace,” he doesn’t blink, doesn’t shake. He means what he says, and we feel it.
The film is less about the sadness of cancer than it is about the wry skepticism and wild energy of teenagers. Being a teen is a beautifully flawed experience on its own, but Hazel and Gus’ poise in the face of doom makes their story all the more inspiring and memorable. The film’s ending, while predictably tragic, doesn’t define the experience. Yes, it’s manipulative, and yes, tears will be shed by the bucketful. But what will stick with you is the strong chemistry between the young lovebirds, which is the greatest victory for any romance movie. Color me impressed.