Silver Screen: The Fault in Our Stars ****
Our nation’s search for a form of clean, sustainable energy is over. We can power entire hydroelectric dams using just the tears extracted from screenings of The Fault in Our Stars, the adaptation of author John Green’s bestselling love story about the budding relationship between two cancer-stricken teenagers.
Like the novel, director Josh Boone’s big-screen version is an unabashed tearjerker, but there’s much more to it than maudlin sentiment and emotional manipulation.
Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel, a seventeen-year-old who has spent the entirety of her teen years dealing with cancer. Hazel isn’t caustic, but she’s got no time for nonsense, and as she bluntly states in the movie’s opening narration, it’s not a question of if the cancer will claim her but when. An experimental treatment has her in partial remission, but a side effect of all the drugs is that her lungs frequently fill up with fluid, a potentially deadly condition in and of itself that requires her to be permanently tethered to an oxygen tank.
Her mother (Laura Dern) is worried that Hazel is depressed, spending all her time in the house alone watching reality TV and rereading the same obscure book, An Imperial Affliction, by forgotten expat author Peter Van Houten. She convinces her daughter to attend a support-group meeting in a church basement, led by a well-intentioned sap (Mike Birbiglia) who peddles feel-good clichés and plays uplifting songs on his acoustic guitar.
At one of the group sessions Hazel meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a fellow survivor in full remission after bone cancer took his right leg. Like Hazel, Gus is free-spirited and fiercely individualistic, but his brand of fatalism is far more optimistic. He’s excitable, impulsive, and not the least bit subtle about his infatuation with the sardonic wallflower. The two begin an adorable courting process that lives in the dark shadow of her prognosis.
Despite Hazel’s failing health, Gus conspires to take her to Amsterdam to visit Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) and get answers about the end of her favorite novel. The reclusive author’s insights may not prove as soothing as the two hope, however, as there can be as much pain in getting what you want as not getting it at all. As Gus notes, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
If you know much about romance, melodrama, and irony, the ending of The Fault in Our Stars is pretty easy to predict. That doesn’t deprive the story of resonance, however, as the substance of the story is more significant than its form. The Fault in Our Stars is a romance, sure, and a four-hankie weepie, but it’s also an admonition of victimhood. Hazel’s greatest fear is that her entire life will be defined by her illness— that, as she says, “all I ever really did was have cancer”—and her ferocity and determination in defiance of that status make the movie counterintuitively uplifting.
Boone’s film version hews closely to Green’s book, which has sold ten-million copies and boasts a legion of devoted fans. That’s mostly for the best, although the feistiness of Hazel’s first-person narration is slightly diminished in the adaptation, mostly because of the shift in media. Occasionally the movie would have done well to make some changes— that romantic moment in the Anne Frank house was off-putting in the book and even more uncomfortable in the film— but for the most part the story translates nicely.
The biggest hitch is Elgort, who’s a perfectly acceptable teen-heartthrob type, but not quite up to the task of playing the wise-beyond-his-years Gus. He’s got the smoldering glances and cutesy smirks locked down, but isn’t so deft with the big, transcendent speeches. He can’t quite keep up with Woodley, who’s able to switch between baby-bird frailty and pint-sized dynamo from scene to scene as required. She does most of the heavy lifting here, although Dern, as the deeply concerned but not overbearing mother, gives the movie’s most soulful performance, even if it’s often relegated to the background.
Even the dedicated cynic will have a hard time keeping a stiff upper lip throughout The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a nice evocation of first love, even without the amped-up stakes and impending mortality, but it works even better as a manifesto for those who refuse to suffer the fate of one defined by suffering.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.