In the opening scene of The Fault in Our Stars, protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, Divergent) outlines a series of cancer movie cliches and dismisses them with firm bluntness. “That's not the truth,” she insists. “This is the truth. Sorry.” And thus, the film sets a high bar for itself, declaring that it's going to be honest about things other movies usually cheat on. Does it live up to that lofty goal? Well... partially, anyway. The Fault in Our Stars (based of a critically acclaimed novel by John Green) is aiming for the sort of audience those other cancer movies usually aim for, not an adventurous arthouse crowd, so it still sands some of the edges off of Hazel's life. So no, it isn't the teen-movie equivalent of Amour, but it sits comfortably alongside 50/50 as a moving, well-acted, thoughtful movie which actually does confront some difficult things with relative honesty.
Hazel is a 16-year-old who has been diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer. Under the circumstances, she's as pragmatic as possible about the situation: she's accepted the fact that she's going to die, she doesn't see the point in wasting her time complaining about it and she's making a valiant effort to accommodate the wishes of her loving parents (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park and Sam Trammell, True Blood).
Then she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort, Carrie), another teen who has battled (and overcome) cancer. The two connect over their shared fondness for frankness and gallows humor, and the instant friendship quickly threatens to become something more. However, a romance comes with serious risks: Hazel isn't going to live that much longer, and when her time runs out, Gus is going to be left with a broken heart. As such, the two agree to keep things firmly in “just friends” territory, but that resolution seems unlikely to last more than a reel or two.
The movie doesn't go so far as to give its characters that Love Story-esque “death glow,” but it often turns squeamish when the going really gets rough. Truly horrific moments tend to happen offscreen, with Hazel's narration filling in the gaps until she's feeling well enough to re-appear. Still, in this context it feels less like a gesture of disengagement from reality than a gesture of sympathy. We like these characters and we don't want to see them suffer. In a way, the film is doing the same thing for us that Hazel does for her parents: downplaying the true awfulness of a thing in order to make it just a little more bearable.
The witty, earnest rapport between Hazel and Gus forms the core of the movie, and while it occasionally veers into self-aware cuteness, the actors manage to sell it to varying degrees. Woodley in particular is excellent, often playing scenes on multiple levels and subtly indicating that she's doing her level best to keep despair at bay. Elgort is appealingly sardonic, but relies a little more on his puppy dog-ish good looks and surface-level charm than Woodley does (in fairness, so does the character he plays). They overcome the manipulative nature of the premise and a couple of disastrous scenes (including an incredibly ill-advised makeout session in The Anne Frank House). I liked them, I rooted for them and I wanted to see them find as much happiness as possible within the confines of their difficult situation.
The Fault in Our Stars gets both better and worse when it comes to the supporting characters. Dern and Trammell do tremendous work as Hazel's parents, and every single scene they appear in rings true. My heart broke a little every time I saw Dern's face, because she so accurately captures a woman who loves her daughter to pieces and just knows the hammer is going to drop at any minute. Trammell plays the quieter, calmer parent of the two, and he shares a low-key conversation with Hazel late in the film that ranks as one of the movie's best moments. I realize this is a movie about cancer-stricken teenagers in love – and it's a good one - but there's an even richer, deeper movie lurking within the Dern and Trammell performances.
On the other hand, the movie struggles mightily in its portrait of some of the quirkier figures populating its landscape. A religious group therapy leader comes across as a cartoonish cliché that wandered into the proceedings from an episode of South Park: “We're literally in the heart of Jesus,” he sighs happily while looking down at a giant rug featuring a portrait of Christ. Then he sings silly, inspirational songs about Jesus and cancer. It's a small part, but an embarrassing one that feels out of step with the reality of the film. To a lesser degree, the same applies to the grouchy writer essayed by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), a mean-spirited, pretentious prick who's characterized in a way that feels like a bitter ex-fan's exaggerated description of a former idol. Dafoe's exceptional gifts permit the scenes to play as reasonably engaging self-contained moments of dark comedy, but again, they don't fit. Incidental elements, perhaps, but they're distractingly off-key.
I haven't read Green's novel, but it has a massive fan base, of course (three different versions of it were included on the list of 2014's top ten best-selling books), and the film version deserves credit for telling a genuinely affecting cancer-themed love story without turning shamelessly exploitative (one can only wonder what sort of atrocious tale Nicholas Sparks might have wrung out of this concept). Yes, it's the sort of thing that certain young viewers fawn over in the same way that certain young viewers fawn over Twilight, but don't let that trick you into thinking this is another mindless YA adaptation. It's flawed and lacks the courage to achieve true greatness, but it's also tender, funny, romantic and moving. During its best moments, it's even wise.
The Fault in Our Stars
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 2014