An epic love story about, well, love. Go figure.
– Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace
The Fault In Our Stars –based on John Green’s best-selling novel of the same name – pulls no punches in its tale of love, loss, and teens battling their own bodies. It’s a love story that happens to feature kids with cancer, but — and this is also true of the novel – Fault examines through allegory the high stakes with which young love, that is true love, comes.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is not so much living life as she is surviving it. Diagnosed with cancer at a young age that has metastasized into her lungs, Hazel wades through her depression as her mother’s (Laura Dern) positivity and optimism pushes her into a Cancer Support Group in order to connect with teens facing the same struggles. Hazel sees her depression as more of an honest assessment and acceptance of her predicament. While at her forced therapy, Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an ebullient teen in remission, and the two form an instant and unlikely bond.
Though the plot is highly predictable, even from viewing the trailer, it by no means softens the blow of the ultimate climax. Truthfully, the overall story matters so little as the interactions between the characters and the relationships are what, in fact, allow the film to shine. Whether it be Hazel and Augustus, Hazel and her parents, the young couple and their best friend Issac (Nat Wolff), the examination of Issac’s first heartbreak, or Hazel and her favorite author – each relationship is fully realized, authentically portrayed, and thoroughly explored. Hazel cares little for those who let cancer define them; her disdain comes mostly from an unspoken fear of leaving those around her. She does not want to die, but as a teenager, she refuses to explore or explain her feelings fully to those who love her. The changes Gus makes in Hazel’s life are both subtle and profound.
The cast absorbs the material effortlessly; upon watching the film, I felt like a fly on the wall observing real moments. Woodley is a breath of fresh air; her plunge into Hazel’s world reflects in her every pore; she completely embodies the young woman fighting to stay alive long enough the truly experience all of her firsts. Every movement or word is calculated; guarded in the beginning, the change Augustus brings in her is notable, and Woodley plays it so earnestly you almost feel the changes in her heartbeat. Ansel Elgort’s Augustus is coolly confident with blazing eyes and a cocksure smile: this young man is destined for great things. Although not as practiced and refined as Woodley’s, Elgort’s craft is one of charisma and sincerity, like a young Paul Newman or James Dean. Friends and frequent collaborators, Woodley and Elgort’s chemistry is one built from a strong friendship that is evident in their moments on screen. Memorable moments from Willem Dafoe (in a cameo role I won’t spoil for you), Laura Dern, and Lotte Verbeek are still outshone by the younger cast but are necessary for the examination of relationships.
A strong turn from a fairly new director, John Boone delivers a sophisticated film with masterfully designed shots and sets. A particularly superb scene takes place around the midway mark, where one character expresses love for the other. Boone chose to shoot the table, the food, the atmosphere in such a way that the shots seem to be building to this moment of confession. In any other romantic drama, this scene would have been presented in three shots with a few moments of ambiance. Boone is not afraid to show his hand, allowing the viewer information the characters might not know. No frame is wasted or presented for any other effect than to cover the scene with sincerity and honor the truth of each moment of this young girl’s life.
Fault is a dialogue-heavy film, choosing to fill most silences with Hazel’s voice or the main character’s witty repartee, but for the most part, this helps the movie. These are Hazel’s thoughts pushed into the void, or text messages beautifully displayed for the examination of the growing love between the main characters. And though it could be described as a “talkie,” the words never feel overly expository or forced. This is the world created from the novel; perhaps Stephanie Meyer might take note. There is one scene, however, that should have been played in the silences and looks between the characters: Augustus confesses something to Hazel. It happens nearly verbatim from the book. In the novel, it works because the reader needs to receive the information in a way that is authentic from Gus, and it packs an emotional wallop, but the scene in the film suffers from that dedication to the original work. The moment comes across as very derivative of similar moments presented on film, and this movie had – until that point – existed outside previous works. It by no means destroys the film; it was, however, a missed opportunity for Elgort to shine, as he does later in the movie with the same material.
But staying true to the novel in most of the rest of the film works. For those “in the know” – mainly, readers of the book – easter eggs fill the frame of nearly every scene. No one needs to say: “why is there a V for Vendetta poster in Gus’s room?” “who are ‘the Hectic Glow,” “what video game is that?” Unlike the recent Veronica Mars film, I doubt you’d have to read the book for the film to work. It stands entirely on its own as another way to present Hazel’s story. I do have a thought on one moronic change, however: advancing Gus’s age by a year is product of cultural sensitivity to teens having sex. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me as to why the producers (or writer or directors) decided to make Gus eighteen instead of seventeen. The only thing I could fathom is that the filmmakers felt Middle America could not handle a sixteen and seventeen year-old doing the nasty. Spoiler Alert: it happens. It is handled so well in the film, all of the passion of a first time coupled with embarrassment, naivete, and emotional weight. These are kids living on borrowed time; a short life span demands a bit of leeway, in my opinion.
As I have said – as well as other writers covering the film have pointed out — The Fault in Our Stars is not a cancer-kids love story. It is a love story with somewhat higher stakes, but aren’t all first-time love stories? I have to applaud whoever came up with the scene of Augustus and Hazel watching the Buffy the Vampire episode “Surprise”; in that show, a character loses her virginity to someone who changes, lets her down, and ultimately leaves her. Without knowing the show or the episode, it is just another scene, but allegorically, what a moment!
There are flaws here, missed opportunities and some occasional Tommy Wiseau-style acting, but overall, the sublime outweighs the false notes. The Fault in Our Stars is a triumph of young love, the beauty of the novel bursting onto the screen. A mature window into a subject for teenaged movie-goers, I suggest those with a more refined palate that spit at the likes of Neighbors spend sometime in the stars.
Woodley and Elgot’s Performances: A
Film Grade: B. Kleenex stock is going up.