We’re told from the very beginning that this is a different kind of cancer story. There will be no Hollywood fluff or gloss here says our narrator and lead character Hazel (Shailene Woodley). Instead, she’s going to tell us the cold, hard truth of what it’s like to be a teenager facing a health-related death sentence. Well, the cold, hard truth as filtered through a slightly less glossy Hollywood lens anyway.
Hazel’s childhood cancer has moved into her lungs leaving her a teenager whose constant companions are an oxygen tank on wheels and a pair of tubes up her nose. She spends her days re-reading her favorite book and watching with wistful eyes as young couples in love live their lives around her until a chance meeting with a fellow cancer survivor named Augustus (Ansel Elgort) leads not only to her very own love story, but also to a new appreciation for metaphors.
Despite Hazel’s`protests to the contrary, The Fault In Our Stars belongs to a dramatic sub-genre that consists primarily of young love and deadly illness. It’s most always cancer because cancer is a bitch like that, but the steady theme through this and films like A Walk to Remember, Here on Earth and Love Story is that life is short and every moment — especially the ones when you’re in love — should be fought for and cherished. And if you can find a way to smoothly transition the memory of Anne Frank from metaphor to foreplay? That works too.
Hazel is fully aware of her limited life-span, and while she loves her parents and worries about what will come of them after she’s gone she’s not shy about turning her mordant wit on them or anyone else. She begrudgingly agrees to group therapy sessions and bumps into Gus who’s there supporting his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Hazel and Gus hit it off immediately until he whips out a cigarette and places it between his lips. Her disgust becomes desire, though, when she learns he only smokes metaphorically.
The two become fast friends on the road to something far greater with her diminishing health always hanging just off-screen like a hand grenade, occasionally rearing its tumorous head to remind them and us of her impending mortality. They bond over a novel, its themes (“Pain demands to be felt.”) and its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe), and their exploration over his fictional world informs their own as they live out a romance in the shadow of death.
It sounds like a downer, and to be sure Josh Boone‘s The Fault In Our Stars checks all the boxes of the sub-genre, but in its and Hazel’s defense it handles things with far more humanity than those other films above. It’s closer in spirit to 50/50 in its ability to forgo melodrama or maudlin sentimentality in favor of humor and personality, and while Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber‘s script (adapted from John Green‘s bestselling novel) makes for a somewhat bumpy ride, the film survives and thrives on two guarantees.
First, Woodley gives an incredibly affecting and effective lead performance. And second, you will cry.
Woodley, who also starred in Neustadter & Weber’s The Spectacular Now, anchors the film not only through her lead role and narration but with a performance that humanizes her character and situation. She also avoids glamorizing the role in the way Hollywood’s doomed romances are wont to do with their feminine halves — this is less an issue of “attractiveness” than one of practicality as Woodley wears the nasal tubes throughout the entirety of the film. All the props in the world wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t deliver, but thankfully she does so with visible honesty, emotion and vitality.
She’s a large part of why audiences will shed copious tears or at the very least grow misty-eyed throughout. Boone keeps a couple key scenes on her face even as others are talking off-screen, and we see the pain in her eyes, hear the raspy breaks in her voice and watch as her own tears form and fall down her cheeks. It’s powerful stuff, and Woodley moves beyond the expected actorly affectations to find the person underneath. It’s not all wah-wah time either as Hazel’s indomitable spirit is given exuberant life and light.
The film is less successful when we’re not tearing up or laughing, though. Dafoe’s subplot feels artificial and a bit contrived, and the spontaneous applause in Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam is ridiculous. (The move from her words as inspiration to apparent aphrodisiac are even more so.) Elgort is a charismatic and talented young actor and the character is both intelligent and entertaining, but his affability can’t hide the fact that Gus is a manic pixie dream guy — we like him, we like spending time with him, he’s everything a girl could want in a man, but we in no way believe this perceived piece of perfection bears any resemblance to a real person. It doesn’t hurt their chemistry, but Gus’ lack of depth lessens the overall drama.
The Fault Of Our Stars understands that the connections we make while alive form the memories of us once we’re gone, and it’s that celebration of life and love that makes the film more than just a simple tear-jerker. It’s a familiar message, but it’s one told well with wit and heart. And a whole truckload of metaphors.
The Upside: Shailene Woodley; exercises your tear ducts, your heart and your funny bone
The Downside: It’s a Hollywood truth; the recluse writer character is more than a little cliched; Gus is pure fantasy; Anne Frank
On the Side: The title is left unexplained in the film, but it’s pulled from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”