“I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand, you can sugarcoat it. Nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does. It’s just not the truth.”
With its beautiful leads and an impossibly romantic European interlude, I wouldn’t exactly say The Fault in Our Stars gets at the truth either. But the film has enough authentic touches — and, more importantly, treats its characters with enough unvarnished affection — to make it one of the most effective tearjerkers in recent years.
“What’s your story? Not your cancer story, your real story?”
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is depressed. Her doting parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) believe Hazel’s depression is a side effect of the cancer the 17 year old has been battling since she was 13. But Hazel wryly observes it’s probably just a side effect of dying. After being forced to attend an unbearably maudlin support group, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Engort). Gus is there to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), but is a cancer survivor himself; he is currently cancer-free after having his leg amputated. Hazel is immediately attracted to Gus’s rakish charm and his desire to accomplish great things rather than wallow in his sickness.
The two quickly form a strong connection and wind up bonding over Hazel’s favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction.” Unfortunately, the (fictional) book ends mid-sentence, leaving Hazel curious about the fates of the people its dead protagonist left behind. Gus tracks down the book’s reclusive author, but the writer insists he would only reveal the answers to Hazels’ questions in person. But just as Hazel and Gus prepare to go on the trip of a lifetime, we are quickly reminded about the perils of people with terminal diseases making plans a month in advance.
The Fault in Our Stars is based on John Green’s 2012 worldwide best seller of the same name. (The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”) It’s easy to see why Green’s sharply-observed teenage love story connected with audiences. I imagine a lot of the book’s fans are in a similar age range to the main characters, where you’re old enough to reflexively reject things that seem corny (like Nicholas Sparks’ latest cry-fest), but not quite old enough to be unfazed when people make fun of the things you like (like Nicholas Sparks’ latest cry-fest).
The film adaptation, directed by Josh Boone, follows (semi-subversive) suit while sprinkling in a few neat nods to its source material. (Hazel and Gus may not discuss V for Vendetta in the movie, but you can see a poster for the film hanging in Gus’s bedroom.) I really like that, for the most part, the female character gets to be the bitter, sarcastic one here while Gus embodies a male variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Normally, what we get is a saintly heroine whose valiant suffering teaches everyone around her about the beauty of life. (Or something.)
Hazel, on the other hand, treats her cancer as the ultimate nuisance rather than the ultimate tragedy. The Fault in Our Stars also counteracts convention by giving us two wounded protagonists. So instead of yet another movie where a dying character (ironically) teaches healthy people how to live, The Fault in Our Stars is about the profound effect life — or a lively personality — can have on those who are dying. Hazel and Gus each acquire a different outlooks on their respective futures, which is refreshing because most stories about people who are dying don’t even bother to consider these characters’ futures.
The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t name names, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it views itself as a hip, self-aware alternative to similarly-themed movies like Love Story, A Walk to Remember, Sweet November and others. Those emotional movies are easy targets, but they’re also beloved by a significant number of people for a reason. And while Boone, along with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, incorporate some fine touches — like the way Hazel’s phone is never more than an arm’s length away when she’s waiting for a call from Gus — the movie inevitably falls into a lot of the same melodramatic traps it seems to be mocking.
For example, I thought the connection between Hazel and Gus was more powerful and affecting when they were hanging out in his basement/bedroom or at the local park rather than eating dinner in a fancy Dutch restaurant that very much made them seem like they were starring in a romantic drama. I don’t mind a little cinematic fantasy; it just seems a tad hypocritical from a movie that purports to tell “the truth.” Boone is also not very subtle about the way he incorporates Chekov’s gun staircase: if you see a flight of stairs in the first act, you know it’s going to cause a problem before the final act. Speaking of the final act, I thought the tragic turn of events felt more earned and realistic than the overly articulate eulogizing that followed it.
Then again, a lot of the frayed edges in any romantic comedy/drama can be masked — more so than in any other genre — by appealing performers. The Fault in Our Stars is lucky in that regard because Woodley and Engort are pretty terrific. The actors, who appeared as siblings in Divergent earlier this year, form a connection between Hazel and Gus that feels authentic and is pleasingly emotional, even if I don’t feel like they generated a ton of heat together. (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams don’t need to watch their backs.) If it weren’t for the oxygen tank Hazel has to haul everywhere, Woodley could be playing any clever girl who becomes slightly dumbfounded by new, unexpected experiences. Engort, who previously gave some depth to what could’ve been a one-dimensional charmer in the new Carrie, is a smart, sturdy match for Woodley’s innate relatability.
Dern gets more screen time than Trammell as Hazel’s concerned parents. It was refreshing to see neither of them lapse into “stay away from our daughter” mode. I liked (and believed) Dern’s desperate cheeriness. Wolff is ok as Isaac, even if his story feels a bit shoehorned into the movie. The film also has a fairly well-known actor pop up as the reclusive author for a searing turn that cuts through the schmaltz. (You can easily find out who the actor is, but I won’t be the one to spoil it.)
The Fault in Our Stars successfully transcends a lot of the clichés related to movies or books about dying characters by presenting them as fully-formed people who happen to be sick. The film is considerably less successful at transcending a lot of the sentimentality it seems to be turning up its nose at. Still, The Fault in Our Stars remains more thoughtful and satisfying than the average tearjerker. It’s also a smart bit of counterprogramming during the loud, sequel-heavy summer season.