by Ken B.
Film critic James Berardinelli once wondered if we’ve reached the point where the term “young adult” in terms of fiction has lost its meaning, as segregating what’s made for adults as opposed to what’s made for teenagers dismisses the best work made for the latter group. The Fault in Our Stars is a movie that deserves due consideration in general. Based on the very good novel of the same name by John Green, it may seem to the uninformed viewer that this is a maudlin tearjerker using cancer as its catalyst. But upon examination, this is a film that has higher ambitions. It is an insightful examination upon life, death, and love, benefited by writing that finds a balance between humor and morbidity and solidified with fantastic acting. Josh Boone’s film may not be without its flaws, but its positives do well to hide many of them.
The Fault in Our Stars centers around Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen year old girl with thyroid cancer, which she has had for years. It has spread to her lungs, so she must carry an oxygen tank with her at all times. She isn’t in a formal school at the moment, but takes classes at a local community college. Her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) regularly send her to a support group for kids with cancer, held in a local church basement. It’s a deeply unpleasant affair. One day, she meets Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) at one of these meetings. Gus has been in remission from osteosarcoma for some time, and despite the threat of its return, he lives normally and contently, the only apparent sign of his history being a prosthetic leg, replacing a limb taken by the disease. A match for Hazel’s personality and wit, they immediately hit it off. The story moves from here, detailing their relationship, which will include, among other things, a three-day trip to Amsterdam so that Hazel may meet Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of her favorite book, with the hope of discussing its cryptic ending and getting answers from the reclusive man.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The great pleasure of watching The Fault in Our Stars at its best moments is not as much the progression of its story but how the scenes within it are written and how the cast brings it to life. The screen adaptation was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They wrote (500) Days of Summer, another movie about a relationship that defies the pratfalls of the genre. The Fault in Our Stars may be quite different from the other film, but it is still enjoyable and done with admirable writing. Giving credit where credit is due, many portions of the snappy and smart dialogue are lifted directly from Green’s novel.
As for the acting, the most credit must be handed over to Shailene Woodley, who gives an incredible, standing-ovation worthy performance, moving from laughter to tears and back again. There are some overly sappy moments in this movie, but the level of Woodley’s performance helps us get through them. Ansel Elgort is pretty good as Gus, but is unable to meet his co-star’s level. In the supporting cast, we have Nat Wolff as Isaac, another support group kid, whose cancer has affected his eyes, Willem Dafoe as Van Houten, a character whose qualities I will reserve for the reader to witness on their own, if they don’t know already, Lotte Verbeek as Van Houten’s assistant, and Sam Trammell and Laura Dern as Hazel’s parents. Special mention should be given to Dern, who registers with emotional scenes that leap off the screen.
And yet, we must also discuss the issues that crop up here. Firstly, the movie’s 126 minute runtime can prove too long or ill-paced, with a first hour saturated with establishing events and a second that takes its time with the film’s key content, often making everything feel lopsided. Here’s the other problem: Despite a general freshness to its approach, The Fault in Our Stars cannot escape moments where the feels reach the roof, and not in a good way. Backed with plucky guitar strings from an indie-rock soundtrack, there are times you feel as if the movie is forcing the feelings on screen to come out, as opposed to letting them build and present themselves naturally. This is not representative of the film at large, but towards the emotionally heavy third act, it becomes apparent more than it should.
It’s unfair to say this is just another “young adult” movie. In reality, it’s a solid romantic dramedy, made with professional and quite capable hands. Yes, there are moments where the events onscreen are overdone, seemingly crafted out of a guidebook to squeezing tears out of its viewers’ eyes, but these errors can be forgiven thanks to the film’s great talent and power otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether or not you fit into its target demographic – The Fault in Our Stars is two hours well spent for anyone looking to see a movie with fascinating characters telling a worthwhile story.
DIRECTED BY JOSH BOONE SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT NEUSTADTER & MICHAEL H. WEBER, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JOHN GREEN STARRING SHAILENE WOODLEY, ANSEL ELGORT, AND NAT WOLFF RATED PG-13 126 MINUTES