I don’t always catch on to trends in real time, but it was hard to ignore this tear-inducing behemoth for too long. My reason for skipping both John Green’s bestseller and the movie it spawned is my aversion to terminal illness weepies, and such stories featuring teen lovers are especially to be avoided. (A Walk to Remember almost made my eyes roll out of my head.) There is just too much manipulation for these movies not to end up as one giant pity-fest.
The Fault in Our Stars tries to offset those suspicions in its opening voiceover when cancer patient Hazel (Shailene Woodley) warns that her story is not the sugarcoated kind where “nothing is too messed up that it can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.” And she’s right; this movie eases its pain with an Ed Sheeran tune. It positions itself as one notch above the rest – smarter, funnier, sadder, more honest. And in many respects, it is all these things. But that knowing nod to its audience also carries a hint of pretention, and too often its considerable wit blurs into didacticism, which equally depends on the same manipulation it wants to avoid. You won’t find more pithy one-liners from teenagers than you will here. (“Depression’s not a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying.” “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have a say in who hurts you.” “You gave me a forever within the numbered days.” More?)
All that is not to say that the film is unwatchable or even bad. Quite the opposite. Hazel is, in fact, a refreshingly clever character, and Woodley’s superb performance gives such emotional breadth to the role. The actress has gotten some flack for her comments on feminism (she insists she is not one), but in spite of her opinions, she’s created a character feminists can love. Hazel is a bundle of contradictions. She is every bit the moody, sarcastic teenager, proud of her intellect but also in search of excitement and identity. Yet unlike most people her age, she doesn’t overestimate her own existence and understands keenly that we are all doomed to oblivion, as she tells another character.
Diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer at a young age, Hazel lives in limbo while a miracle drug forestalls death. Her disease has forced her to leave high school and, since it has also spread to her lungs, requires that she lug around an oxygen tank. Convinced that their daughter is depressed, her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) sign her up for a cancer support group, which she attends to give them peace of mind. It’s a cringe-fest, until she meets tall, handsome, happy-go-lucky, one-legged cancer survivor, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), there to accompany his soon-to-be-blind friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). The two make it clear that they have no use for this life-affirming nonsense and instead go about doing just that, but in their own way. This includes picnics in the park, late night phone calls, and most of all, a shared love for a ridiculously titled book.
Hazel’s devotion to An Imperial Affliction, itself an infinitely relatable and fictional cancer weepy about a young girl, ends up being an attention-seeking wink to post-modernism as well as a major plot point. The book motivates Hazel and Gus to travel to Amsterdam to visit its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) where they hope to get some answers about its abrupt ending, but he turns out to be a brutish drunk. He mocks their illness, and their confrontation ends up being at once the most uncomfortable and most rewarding scene, satisfying in the way it challenges both characters and the audience about their expectations. Hazel delivers one of the truest lines, barking at him, “There’s nothing you can tell me about my disease that I don’t already know.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the film quickly descends into the mawkish as Cancer finally manifests itself in all its indiscriminate ugliness. The end is neither quick nor tidy and, from all accounts, involves lots of crying from both sides of the screen. Hazel tries to set things right with her parents and chastises Gus for not being satisfied with an ordinary life. Though Dern has the smaller role, she gets the meatier part, and in the final act, she shows off the ache of accepting herself as a mother without a daughter. Elgort has a more difficult task. Gus is essentially a glorified, and good looking, foil for Hazel, and the actor hews pretty close to the characterization in the book. He could but doesn’t seem to ground his part in anything more than an eighteen year old’s suave, cocky bombast, however. Gus is persistently cheerful to a fault, so when he finally isn’t, the ending plays like an unearned gimmick. But perhaps I complain too much. Everyone else is busy wiping away the tears.
“All of the Stars” by Ed Sheeran
“Not About Angels” by Birdy
“Tee Shirt” by Birdy
“No One Ever Loved” by Lykke Li
Prod: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen
Dir: Josh Boone
Writer: Scott Neudstadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Birbiglia, Ana Dela Cruz
Time: 126 min
Country: United States