The Fault in Our Stars

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* * * 1/2

It’s been some time since I’ve felt overwhelmed by a movie, or maybe just a character. Perhaps even longer since I fell in love with one.  That happened a few days ago, and I think I still have butterflies.

In the unabashedly tear-inducing movie adaptation of John Green’s successful novel The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley is a teen with cancer that falls into great love. And you know what happens with all first loves.  Woodley, terrific in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, gives a personal best performance that demands compassion, radiating feelings in every single scene.

While the novel was pitched at teenaged girls, anyone with a heart is likely to be affected by this movie, which features two soaring performances from Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the unexpected young lovers, sensitive direction by Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) and a decided lack of mawkishness even at its most heartrending. Everything here feels earned.

In a movie that gives us smart teens grappling with big issues of life, love and death with clear-eyed pragmatism, grasping at a little happiness while looking into a possible void, Woodley inspires such compassion that she elevates the movie—itself good enough—to a sort of rapturous transcendence, if you will. If that sounds ridiculous, so be it. Love makes you say silly things. Guilty.

Diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer at age thirteen, seventeen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) now lives with tumors that have spread to her lungs, a probably terminal condition remedied by effective medicine and her trusty oxygen tank, which she carries with her at all times.

Though she’s taking college classes, her caring parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) wish she’d get out more, her socializing limited to a teen cancer support group, and she’d rather spend her evenings reading an epic cancer novel.

As Hazel narrates, “I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories.  On the one hand, you can sugarcoat it, where nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.” But she doesn’t choose to tell her story this way, and that sobering realism is challenged by the arrival of one Augustus Waters (Elgort), a handsome, eighteen-year-old former jock in remission who’s lost a leg to cancer himself, and they meet cute in a support group. 

Hazel is self-aware cynicism, Gus all cocky confidence, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips as a symbol of facing that which made him stronger. They’ve both cheated death for a time and while they differ, they immediately strike a bond, which Hazel approaches with trepidation, the picture taking its time in bringing them together.

Their shared routines include doctor visits, medications, life-threatening crises and pals who also are living with the disease, and the solid screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber includes philosophical discussions about making a mark in the world or being cast off into oblivion after death, all thoughtful.

At the midway point, The Fault in Our Stars becomes more expansive, both visually and emotionally, during a surprise trip to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, the Dutch author of Hazel’s favorite book, played with acid and booze by a scene-stealing Willem Dafoe. It’s here that director Boone overplays his hand a bit with a first kiss in the attic of the Anne Frank house, however redeemed by a very tender first love scene that’s more about what is said than what is done. Imagine that in an American film about teens.

There are surprises in the film’s second half as fate intervenes, and what emerges here is a strong portrait of teens in a crisis that never pity themselves but, rather, are concerned with how their parents and the world around them will go on after they are gone. They never rail against the unfairness of their respective situations, Gus instead observing, “I guess the world is not a wish granting factory.”

The parental dynamics are also just right. In a powerful scene with the excellent Dern, Hazel fears for her parents’ abilities to sustain themselves after her death. This is strong stuff, and Dern hands us an original woman—compassionate, supportive, deeply in love with her daughter but inching towards the awful reality of the predicament. It’s quite a portrait.

Winning Elgort is impressively alpha then intensely vulnerable, particularly in a pair of late scenes involving a revelation and a prematurely read eulogy; he really is warm and lovable, beautiful and tragic. He also has the difficult job of playing a character in love—really one of the hardest of all onscreen emotions. But ultimately, The Fault in Our Stars belongs to Woodley, conveying deep emotions in close-up without a hint of affectation, playing a young girl who finds meaning through love, not cancer, and the actress walks away with your heart.

 

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