THEATRICAL REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars
Produced by: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Webter (screenplay)
Edited by: Robb Sullivan
Cinematography by: Ben Richardson
Music by: Mike Mogis, Nate Walcott
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Birbiglia
Based on the novel by John Green
I hadn’t ever heard of the book this movie is based on before a couple months ago when I had a chance encounter with this film’s trailer in the theatre. Filled with lovely platitudes, cutesy dialogue, attractive teenagers going through extraordinary circumstances guaranteed to wrench away tears from your eyes – in this case, a girl who has been suffering the effects of her cancer diagnosis years prior and yet falling in love with the perfect guy who loves her just the way she is – The Fault in Our Stars looked exactly like the seemingly endless adaptations of Nicholas Sparks dreck Hollywood seems to like to churn out and that audiences eat up. I poked fun at it, made fun of the lead character’s name (Hazel Grace), the ridiculous predictability of the love story, the very punchable-looking romantic boyfriend character, the very casting of Shailene Woodley (who hasn’t ever been bad, but is a bankable big star among teenage girls)… It looked, quite frankly, like exploitative shit, and I wasn’t going to have any of it. And then the reviews came out.
80%. That’s the current score aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes of how many film critics ended up giving this film a positive review. What the heck happened here? Had the world gone mad and some kind of decline in taste for quality films infected even the people who are supposed to warn the masses of gullible people away from films like this? I rewatched the trailer and compared reactions with my best friend. We both agreed – How could this be any good? It looked just immensely awful, and we didn’t comprehend it. Unlike him, however, my curiosity was too strong, and I was compelled to watch it despite the previews. The question was, was I going to wait to see it on DVD or was curiosity going to get the best of me and compel me to see it in theatres? I asked my other friend if his girlfriend would go with me. That never panned out, but that’s how much the frustration and curiosity was getting to me, and I didn’t want to go alone. I waited a few weeks, seeing a few of the summer’s big action flicks in the meantime (some of which I intended to review but never did because of the Star Wars reviews I was doing, and now I’m tired of reviewing big action films), but curiosity and urge to go to the theatre eventually won out, and I decided to finally go since I wasn’t interested in any of the week’s other new releases. I was going to see The Fault in Our Stars by myself, and I did. … And… it was actually… good…
In case you had never read the book, seen the trailers, or just weren’t paying attention to me earlier, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster and her journey through adolescence with a lifetime of cancer behind her and an uncertain but no undoubtedly short life ahead of her. She’s recently agreed to attend a support group for teens who have also gone through cancer, not really because she wants to, but because her doctor and mother are urging her to make friends with people who understand what she’s going through. Of course, it’s there that she meets Gus, who’s showing up as support for his friend Isaac. Gus is a charismatic guy, having lost his leg but officially in remission and very happy to spread the good humor to others who suffered like himself. Hazel, of course, catches his eye, and he’s quick to let her know just how he feels about her. Hazel, remembering the grief her parents went through the first time they thought she was going to die soon, is reluctant to let Gus get attached and only agrees to be friends with him, even though she, of course, feels an immense attraction to him, too. Heck, even her parents approve!
Unlike most romances where the girl with obvious attractions pushes the guy away, Hazel at least has good reason to feel that way, even if you want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her, “GO FOR IT!” followed by an encouraging shove. The nice thing about The Fault in Our Stars, however, is that, while the plot may be somewhat predictable, it still somehow manages to not feel like a fairytale or romance novel, too, so all the emotions the characters feel ring true. The simple fact of the matter is that, again, unlike most starcrossed lovers who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their relationship, the obstacles here aren’t just artificial social boundaries but very real, very inevitable ones that each of the teenage characters is unfairly resigned into accepting as a fact of their existence, and they’ve all got their coping mechanisms in place. Gus’ friend Isaac, for instance, has some aggression issues which he likes to take out in video games, but when he goes into the somewhat comical direction of destroying a few of Gus’ surrendered trophies, it’s easy to overlook the fact that losing his eyesight to his disease is also robbing him of video games, too, giving his gravity towards physical aggression at least some context. Similarly, as cheesy and eyeroll-invoking as Gus’ romantic outlook on life can be, despite his fear of “oblivion,” you can’t help but feel some admiration for his positivity and his unceasing urge to help Hazel find her own respite from her fears of what she knows is inevitable.
Embracing inevitability is probably the key to this film standing out amongst the throngs of other cloying, cancer-ridden romance stories we’ve seen. We know from the beginning that these kids don’t hold on to any lofty hopes of one day living a normal life, even if they do live to be what is commonly accepted as a ripe old age. The film is careful to not romanticize the disease itself, but it’s all about giving purpose to these characters’ very likely short lives and engrossing us as an audience of very likely healthy-enough people in those lives, rather than just providing us with a generic “live your life to its fullest” message we’re so often spoon fed. It’s more a story of compassion than it is wish fulfillment in that respect, coming at the story with a notable understanding that undoubtedly stems from the book’s author and popular YouTube vlogger John Green’s experience as student chaplain at a hospital and working directly with terminally ill children and teens.
It also helps that The Fault in Our Stars features not just attractive but talented young stars. While the film features good performances from an adult cast that includes Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, and Willem Dafoe, it’s Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort who earn their place at the center of attention as Hazel Grace and Gus, respectively. Though there were still times when I felt like Gus was still asking to be punched, it’s hard to dislike the guy after he actually starts succeeding in charming both Hazel and the audience as the film goes on, and as we learn more about the character and his traumas, a welcome bit of humanity and even humility starts coming through his manic pixie dream boy façade. Shailene Woodley, however, after giving a solid and realistic but otherwise unremarkable performance in the screenwriters’ previous adaptation, The Spectacular Now, here rises to the occasion as Hazel Grace, whose frilly name belies her down-to-earth personality. She conveys a weariness and wisdom beyond her character’s age without feeling like a caricature nor swinging between moods at the drop of the hat and going into hysterics at the realization that she’s missed out on a normal childhood. Again – this film embraces the inevitability of death, but it also embraces realism in its characters, including the complexity of emotions that come with life, even without cancer.
I admit that I went into this movie with lowered expectations, and I still think the trailer is absolute garbage, but the film it was advertising is most certainly not. Granted, it still has its eyeroll-inducing moments (and I mean that literally), and some of the film’s story elements don’t work quite as well as one would hope (such as the search for answers from one of Hazel’s favorite authors), but I came out of the theatre with the welcome realization that whoever compiled the scenes for the trailer was focusing way too much on soaring emotions just to get butts in the seats. The cloying moments there generally work a lot better in the context of the complete film, which isn’t nearly as shoe-gazey as one would expect, either, trust me. The movie’s still a tearjerker romance story, complete with some obvious story turns that closed minded individuals will likely still be resistant to, but with likable characters, authentic emotions (you will probably laugh, but YOU WILL MOST ASSUREDLY CRY!), and some surprisingly profound insight, I’m happy to report that, yes, I was wrong in my perceptions – The Fault in Our Stars turned out to be a pretty good film.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5