THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
2014, PG-13, 125 mins.
2014, PG-13, 125 mins.
Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster / Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters / Nat Wolff as Isaac / Laura Dern as Mrs. Lancaster / Sam Trammell as Mr. Lancaster / Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten
Directed by Josh Boone / Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS walks up a very slippery and problematic cinematic slope. It traverses between two subgenres that, when done poorly, can come off as manipulative poppycock: the coming-of-age teen romance drama and the terminal cancer tearjerker.
Yet, THE FAULT
IN OUR STARS manages – through strong and perceptive writing,
wonderfully nuanced lead performances, and a keen and observantly told love
story – to overcome the typical pratfalls and conventions of these types
of films. That, and the film
all but confirms 22-year-old star Shailene Woodley as one of the most
natural screen presences of the movies.
Every moment she occupies in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS contains truth;
there’s not a false beat to be found here.
title is an allusion to Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR (“The fault, dear
Brutus, is not in our stars”) and the movie, in turn, is based on the
sixth novel of the same name by John Green, published in 2012 concerning
two Indianapolis teenagers – both with cancer – that fall in love.
The screenplay adaptation was penned by Scott Neustadter and
Michael H. Weber, both of whom previously teamed up to write the sublime
romcom (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
and another Woodley starring vehicle, THE
SPECTACULAR NOW. These
writers have a razor sharp knack for getting into the headspaces of their
quirky characters by making them feel authentically rendered (THE
SPECTACULAR NOW in particular was one of the most attentive and credible
warts-and-all portraits of young romance that I’ve ever seen).
Clearly, Neustadter and Weber not only understand the daunting challenge of
adapting such a cherished literary work, but they also stay true to it while
giving the story a respectful dignity and sense of purpose that so many
other similar films lack altogether. Best of all, they revere and honor their adolescent
characters as bright and thoughtful people, traits that other
coming-of-age films forego altogether.
THE FAULT IN OUR
STARS is about, yes, two young people that have essentially been dealt a
death sentence. Woodley plays
16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who was diagnosed with cancer at 13,
which weakens her lungs to the point where she has to be fed oxygen
through a tank that she methodically drags behind her 24/7.
Being on the recent receiving end of an experimental new drug,
Hazel has managed to prolong her lifespan by a considerable measure, but
she nevertheless struggles on a daily basis.
Her parents (well played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) feel that
their daughter, despite her good fortune with her cancer, might be
depressed, so they insist that she attends a local support group of fellow
cancer patients. It’s
pretty clear within her first few visits that Hazel gets little emotional
benefits from attending.
Alas, it’s at
these support groups that Hazel has a meet-cute with Augustus Waters (Ansel
Elgort, whom played – oddly enough – Woodley’s brother in DIVERGENT),
an older teenage lad that used to be a high school basketball
superstar…until cancer nearly took his life and did take his right leg below the
knee. Initially, Hazel finds
Augustus to be a very eccentrically weird young man, but the more time she
spends with him the more she begins to realize what a positive influence
that he has on her. Since he
too had cancer and essentially beat it, Hazel comes to admire Augustus for
being such a lightning rod of optimistic and cheerful energy (especially
considering his own hellish cancer nightmare) and the pair soon become
romantic sparks easily form between the pair, but Hazel wishes to keep
their relationship as platonic as possible; she perceives herself, in her
own words, as a “grenade” that could explode at any moment…or die at
any moment, leaving any potential boyfriends crestfallen.
He acquiesces to her demands, but over time they both find it
impossible to keep their feelings in check.
One of the
greatest virtues of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is that it never goes our of
its way to present Hazel and Augustus as pathetic victims that are at the
mercy of their respective diseases. Even
though it’s clear that, at any point, cancer could erupt in either of
them and could cause irrecoverable hardships, Hazel and Augustus still
refreshingly occupy their story as relatively normal, happy-go-lucky
teens. The bond that they
share as well is observed with a nurturing patience in the film as well,
and the screenplay captures the exhilarating and stressful whirlwind of
emotions that accompanies just about anyone – young and old – falling in
love. Hazel and Augustus
stand so far apart in this film in relation to other teen characters in
previous films for the manner that they’re captured as genuine, honest,
and deeply flawed human beings.
Even though the cancer that both characters endure takes their
respective toil of their lives, Hazel and Augustus never become whimpering
sufferers. Their collective courage to take on their disease head-on and
move forward with their lives…for whatever time they have left without
looking back…makes them refreshingly heroic.
The chemistry of
the two leads here is of primary importance; without it, the film would
have imploded on itself. Woodley
has rarely been ill-footed in any film in her young career (she was
superlative in THE DESCENDANTS
and was so achingly convincing in THE SPECTACULAR NOW) and she continues her
streak in THE FAULT IN OUT STARS in a touchingly pure performance. She has such a disarmingly subtle naturalism to her that
makes all of her performances feel lived-in and tangible. Ansel Elgort has a tricky role as Augustus, seeing as he has
to play a lovably cocksure and limitlessly self-assured young man that,
deep down, still remains a vulnerable person of humility.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS feels positively alive when Woodley and
Elgort share the screen; their performances invite and draw you into their
stories instead of pushing you away at a distance.
subplot that pays off rather handsomely in the film.
Hazel has been corresponding with her favorite author (played with
meticulous precision and odiousness by Willem Dafoe), who has become a recluse living in
Amsterdam and hasn’t written anything in years.
He does grant Hazel an audience with him at his home overseas, but
after the long and physically arduous flight over to Amsterdam, Hazel is
let down when she discovers what a belligerent, anti-social, and hostile
alcoholic the man has become. Dejected,
Hazel and Augustus decide that the best course of action to recoup is to
tour the sites, so they decide to visit the Anne Frank museum.
Of course, the museum consists of multiple floors with no elevator
support, but Augustus – with one prosthetic leg – and Hazel – with
oxygen tank in tow – help each other make their way up the stairs until
they finally arrive at the top. Upon
making it…they share their first kiss.
It’s a moment of sublime physical and emotional victory for both
of them. Lesser films would
have made scenes like this unbearably saccharine, but THE FAULT IN OUR
STARS earns its payoffs in a legitimately heartfelt way.
Alas, the romance in the film is indeed of the tragic and doomed variety, which means that it seems soul-crushingly inevitable that one of these kids isn’t going to make it out of the film alive. It there were a flaw in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS then it would be in the area of running time (at 125 minutes, the film seems too padded and long), not to mention that the third act – which will arguably leave many audience member reaching for multiple tissues – feels ironically like it’s rushing itself to a conclusion. Still, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS manages the Herculean task of marrying hearty laughs with sweetness and wounded melancholy, and it does so with an exactitude and assured tact. It could be argued that films like this are inherently manipulating viewers to force tears out of them, but THE FAULT IN OUR STARS never once feels nauseatingly exploitative. Unlike so many other cancer melodramas, this film respects and admires its characters enough to not slavishly use them as puppets. This is three-hankie cinema done with impeccable restraint, delicacy, and wit, which is uncommonly rare these days.