D: Josh Boone / 126m
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Mike Birbiglia
Teenager Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is suffering from stage 4 thyroid cancer; she is on oxygen 24/7. While attending a support group she meets Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters (Elgort), who is in remission after losing his right leg to osteosarcoma. Gus and Hazel hit it off and soon they’re hanging out together and swapping life stories. At one point, Hazel tells Gus about her favourite book, “An Imperial Affliction”, a story about a young girl suffering from leukaemia. Gus reads it and is surprised to find the novel ends in mid-sentence; like Hazel he wants to know what happened next. Hazel tells him she’s written to the author on several occasions but he’s never replied to her.
A few days later, Gus announces he’s found the book’s author and has had an e-mail from him. Hazel is amazed and follows this up; she too receives a reply, one that includes an invitation to visit him in Amsterdam, where he lives. Hazel is overjoyed and tells her mother, Frannie (Dern), but the financial reality is that her parents aren’t able to afford the trip. Gus comes to the rescue when he arranges for the Genies (a make-a-wish organisation) to cover the costs. Hazel, Gus and Frannie travel to Amsterdam and the two teenagers meet the novel’s author, Peter Van Houten (Dafoe). However, their excitement is soon tempered by Van Houten’s behaviour towards them, which is boorish and rude. When they leave, Hazel is angry and upset, but they are followed by Van Houten’s personal assistant, Lidewij (Verbeek) who takes them to the Anne Frank museum. There, Gus and Hazel share their first kiss. With their relationship deepening, everything is looking positive, but before they return home, one of them has some bad news…
A teen version of Love Story (1970), but with less angst and more of a sweet-natured approach, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie with so many good intentions it’s almost overwhelming. First there’s Gus’s unremitting refusal to be anything other than upbeat, a reasonable enough reaction given what he’s gone through personally, but there are times when you wonder if anyone would be like that. Then there’s Hazel’s determination to ignore the limitations her cancer is putting on her, as in the scene where she doggedly climbs to the top floor of Anne Frank’s house, her breathing getting more and more laboured as she ascends. These are two incredibly determined individuals, aware of their circumstances but doing their best (Gus, especially) not to let it interfere with their daily lives and their burgeoning relationship.
This leaves the movie feeling for the most part like a teen romance with “issues”, and ones that threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times. As cancer sufferers, both Hazel and Gus are plucky “survivors”, both of them putting on a brave face while unable to stop doubt and fear from eating away at them on the inside. While the issue of cancer is never very far away – Hazel wears a cannula in her nose for pretty much the entire movie – at the outset it’s treated more as an inconvenience than a life-threatening condition (which it is for both of them). This allows the movie to avoid being too heavy-handed or depressing, but leads to the suspicion that what we’re seeing is two young people who are so well adjusted to the vagaries of their respective diseases that the chance for real drama is going to be avoided as well.
That this doesn’t prove to be the case is, naturally, to be expected, but the movie takes a long time in getting there, and its continual positivity begins to wear as it progresses, with Hazel suffering the kind of occasional setback that happens, is shrugged off, and appears to have no toll associated with it at all. If this is a relatively true depiction of dealing with cancer, then full marks to those dealing with it on a daily basis, but in terms of the movie it’s like a tick-box exercise. Leaving notions of personal courage aside, what The Fault in Our Stars is telling us is, don’t let any disease stop you from living as full a life as possible.
While this is entirely commendable, what it isn’t is fodder for a movie that wants to be as “relevant” as The Fault in Our Stars wants (or tries) to be. If the movie is about anything it’s about the need for reassurance where very little can be given, and in circumstances where each day has be taken as it comes. Hazel and Gus’s meeting with Van Houten highlights this perfectly, his refusal to answer their questions or validate their concerns is the one moment in the movie where their attitudes around cancer are challenged. It’s an abrupt change in both pace and tone, and one that the movie badly needs as it staves off full saccharine overload. The repercussions from the meeting help the narrative immensely in the movie’s final third, and there’s a rewarding pay off at the end that would have seemed false otherwise.
As the embattled teens, Woodley and Elgort are a good match, clearly enjoying their roles and shading them more effectively than the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber actually allows. Woodley is as good as you’d expect, investing Hazel with a strained insecurity that keeps her apart from others, including at times her parents. Elgort has the more outgoing role, and while he’s occasionally annoying he makes up for it by balancing Gus’s good nature with an underlying pathos. As Hazel’s mother, Dern does concerned and protective with ease, Wolff cements his reputation as a young actor to watch as fellow cancer victim Isaac, and Dafoe gives the movie a much needed shot in the arm as the truculent Van Houten.
The movie has humour aplenty in its opening scenes, and its gradual descent into full-fledged drama is handled with consistent surety by director Josh Boone, keeping a tight grip on the script’s more overly sentimental moments and grounding the emotional content without recourse to too much melodrama. The movie is lensed to good effect by Ben Richardson, and there’s a low-key score from Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott that underpins the various elements in an unfussy, often touching way.
Rating: 7/10 – bolstered by good performances and confident direction, The Fault in Our Stars avoids movie-of-the-week mediocrity by approaching John Green’s original novel with an appreciation for its attempt to do something a little different; funny and affecting in equal measure, fans of the book won’t be disappointed, while newcomers should be won over nevertheless.