If a film can make you cry, does that immediately make it good? Wrestling with this quandary is what makes The Fault In Our Stars a puzzler.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a teenager who has been in-and-out of hospital her entire life for cancer treatment. Worried their daughter may be depressed; Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) encourage her to attend a support group where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer patient in remission who is drawn to Hazel and a romance blossoms.
Unless you’ve been living underneath Dwayne Johnson for the past few years, you’ll know that The Fault In Our Stars is based on the bestselling young adult book by John Green. The shaky track record of dystopias and supernatural nonsense makes me flinch when I hear that another young adult property is being adapted. The Fault In Our Stars taps you on the shoulder and says “hey, let’s have a conversation about mortality or whatevs”, rare in these teen driven novels and a refreshing change in the film genre. Director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber lay the sad stuff on thick. He has cancer, she has cancer and their best friend has eye cancer and is going blind and somehow it’s all amplified by the achingly sweet romance that develops between Hazel and Gus. The entire narrative is unfortunately mired by the ever present flashing warning signs of doom. It’s so dense that you begin to be desensitised to melancholy while your body cries on cue due to the automated conditioning of Boone’s handling of the material. The direction is also locked to generic interior and exterior locations that looks like a Hallmark movie of the week, and even a trip to Amsterdam looks boring despite the effort Boone puts in to capture the city in motion.
A side cart to the sappy side of the film is Hazel’s quest for closure as she ponders the nature of life when she’s gone and her imprint on the world. The dialogue is mostly inspirational poster quotes but when Hazel’s personal journey is at the forefront, and romantic engagements are put aside, the narrative awakens. Hazel is selfless in the face of her illness and worries that her parents will put their lives on hold with mourning when she’s gone, and she pines to know what happens to the characters of her favourite novel once it’s over. Life goes on, but it’s hard for Hazel to grasp the concept when the Grim Reaper is constantly sending friend requests on Facebook. Hazel’s worries for those around her shows the divine maturity of kids experiencing an illness but also coming to grips with the stack of experience she’ll be denied. There’s also a great moment when Gus asks Hazel what she cashed her ‘make a wish’ on and he’s shocked to discover that she went to Disneyland. Hazel defends her decision by proclaiming that she was just a child and it reminds us of the context of the situation; they are kids that just want to be happy. These elements of Hazel’s journey are touching, particularly the scenes with her parents who are played wonderfully by Dern and Trammell.
Woodley inhabits Hazel as an old soul who has matured in spirit fast due her illness but she still has the infectious excitement that accompanies a squeal when Gus sends her a text or a goofy smile when they share an in-joke. There is a subtle physicality Woodley brings to the role that reminds you of the character’s physical limitations when she is short of breath or slow to get around. Elgort channels the essence 1990s Josh Hartnett and Freddie Prinze Jr. but doesn’t come across as a twenty year-old playing a 15 year-old. Together Woodley and Eglort make a cute couple and are frontrunners for best kiss at the MTV movie awards next year despite the grey area of this moment happening in the Anne Frank house. Yep, just when you thought the cancer wasn’t enough, there’s a holocaust reminder. This is another cue for you to start weeping.
There is substance in The Fault In Our Stars because of how it conveys our relationship between life and death; while churning the cogs of the Tear-Bot-1000.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW