The last three years have given us a string of great teen dramas. The first was The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012. Then, last year, we got The Spectacular Now. This string continues with the Josh Boone-directed The Fault in Our Stars, based on the bestselling young adult novel from author John Green.
The film stars Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teen living with cancer whose closest companion is the oxygen tank she must drag along everywhere she goes. Hazel’s parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) urge their daughter to attend a support group as a way to cope with her situation and the depression it brings about. There, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a young man who aims to leave behind a tremendous legacy — a noble aspiration given that he, too, faces the possibility of a life cut short by a deadly disease.
The pair hit it off almost immediately — well, aside from Gus stating in the group that his chief fear is oblivion and Hazel informing him that everyone’s going to die so nothing he does really matters anyway. That notwithstanding, Hazel and Augustus become quick friends, drawn together by the disease they’ve both fought and the vitriolic feelings toward it that they share.
Despite all the obstacles they face, and Hazel’s assertion that everyone ends up dead anyways, Hazel and Augustus are far more concerned with living life fully than dwelling on the idea that their time on Earth could ultimately be short-lived. They fall in love, deeply, and through their love director Josh Boone and co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber bring us along on one hell of a journey.
Perhaps the first thing to note about The Fault in Our Stars is that, although it could easily be touted as a “cancer movie,” the film isn’t at all exploitive, or at least I didn’t think so, and I never felt as though I was being asked to care for or sympathize with the main characters simply because they have cancer. Rather, I could see my own personal dreams, needs, and desires within each of them.
I did my best not to get emotional during the film, but it is just relentless at times, particularly in its final act — not relentless in the sense that Boone, Neustadter, and Weber use their characters’ illnesses to garner sympathy, but relentless in the sense that the film, through Hazel’s and Augustus’s journey together, comes to a natural crossroads of heartbreak and torment, and this crossroads gets to be almost unbearable as the film comes to a close. Suffice to say, a couple tears, at minimum, will almost assuredly claw their way out of viewers’ eyes.
In a recent New York Times article, screenwriter Scott Neustadter stated the following about adapting John Green’s much-beloved book for the silver screen, particularly their approach to the film’s ending: “You can put a book down anytime and take an emotional break, but you can’t do that with a movie. The end needed to be a little less bleak. We’re allergic to happy endings, but we’ll always go for the hopeful one.”
The ending of the film is mostly well done, aside from a couple missteps here and there regarding a not-so-central character and a mild issue I had with the pacing, but other than that I liked that the film was so well balanced. If my reaction to the ending is any indication, thank goodness Neustadter and Weber opted for a more hopeful ending than the finale that apparently rests in the pages of the book; else, I may have been a complete mess, sitting in the theater in sobs. For a film that deals in things like love, happiness, cancer, and death, your enjoyment of the movie is primarily centered around whether or not you can first accept and then tap into its inherent sap and sadness. The movie could have quickly become overwrought given the subject matter with which it deals, but The Fault in Our Stars largely succeeds in juggling a variety of intense emotions.
In both The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, Shailene Woodley proved that she has massive range; the talented young actress can move an audience from one emotional extreme to the next with a quick smile or a single tear. She is undoubtedly the star of this film, giving one of the best performances of the year so far, but Elgort holds his own opposite Woodley, playing Augustus to very much the same effect as Woodley plays Hazel. There are times you may find Augustus a bit corny or slightly overdone — I definitely did a couple of times — but that’s largely the nature of his “best guy in the universe” character.
Dern and Trammell are great as Hazel’s mother and father, respectively, and Nat Wolff, who plays one of Gus’s best friends, is quite a nice surprise in his role. The only character I really had an issue with was Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of Hazel’s favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction.” Dafoe is fine in the role, and in fact the first time we meet Van Houten, I had no problems with him, aside from the fact that he is an unkind drunkard — but he is largely left behind until late in the film, and I didn’t think his presence at the end was necessary. In fact, it took me out of the film quite a bit, which isn’t ideal considering there were still about 15 minutes to sit through once Dafoe’s character exits the picture.
One other thing of note: it seems filmmakers are finding more and more cool ways to display technology, such as texts and e-mails, in their films, and I really liked how those were integrated here. The text messaging is done in a sort of artsy teenage hand-drawn style, and the e-mails were more traditionally laid out, the words popping up as characters typed or read, which I thought was cool. Boone could have just as easily opted for in insert shot to display these messages and give us the gist, but I like that he chose this route instead.
In all, The Fault in Our Stars is a damn good teen film, but more than that, it’s just a damn good movie, period. The film’s main characters are developed nicely, their story is one that the audience can easily invest in, and the cast is practically pitch perfect, from major roles to smaller ones. I’m really hoping we get yet another solid teen film next year to keep the streak alive, but if not, the trio of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars is probably far more satisfying than we even deserved.
The Fault in Our Stars
Grade: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Runtime: 125 minutes