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Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Directed by: Josh Boone

Premise: Based on the book by John Green. A teenage cancer survivor (Shailene Woodley) meets a charming young man (Ansel Elgort) in a support group and the two fall in love but their relationship is plagued by continued health problems.

What Works: Few literary genres are as scorned as young adult books, and few movies are regarded with as much skepticism as those adapted from young adult books. Worse are movies adapted from young adult romance novels and perhaps worst of all are movies adapted from young adult romance novels involving cancer. The skepticism directed towards these stories is understandable. Too frequently, cancer and other terminal diseases are used crassly by storytellers in order to drum up an appearance of self-importance and create a facade of substance while merely raking the real life pain of the audience for cheap sentimentality. The Fault in Our Stars largely avoids this, particularly in its second half, because it tells a story with appropriate humor and engaging and realistic characters. The heart of the movie is found in its two lead roles: Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Gus. Hazel’s bout with cancer has left her unable to breathe on her own and she must carry an oxygen pack with her wherever she goes; the film captures the life that she must lead in a matter-of-fact way and actress Shailene Woodley plays her part with a lot of reality and dignity. Hazel is a wise character but her experience has left her jaded and nihilistic. The challenge for the character is to allow herself to love and be loved and as hokey as that may sound, the cast and filmmakers of The Fault in Our Stars make it work because they are earnest about it. Hazel is portrayed as a smart young woman who sees through the mendacious optimism of her support group but she isn’t unbelievably smart; she comes across authentically adolescent. As a love story, The Fault in Our Stars works because the central relationship is so involving. All love stories depend upon the audience wanting to see the couple get together and actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort have a palpable onscreen chemistry that’s made all the more powerful because although we want to see them live happily ever after, the circumstances of the story will not allow for it. The Fault in Our Stars is based on a young adult novel, a genre known for oversimplifying complex issues, but in its second half the movie gets increasingly mature and the filmmakers use the story of diseased teenagers not to exploit cancer but to use it as a way to examine the relationship between mortality and love and what that means for all people, healthy or not. 

What Doesn’t: The first half of The Fault in Our Stars isn’t nearly as good as the second half, in part because of its adherence to the clichés of teenage love stories but also because Gus is an irritating character. He and the movie are so smug in the early stages of the relationship that both Gus and the filmmakers’ attempts to breakdown audience’s resistance are counterproductive. Fortunately, that smugness fades in the second half as the characters become more vulnerable and the story matures. The Fault in Our Stars is also strained by contrived plotting. One of the elements pulling the narrative together is a fictitious novel written by a mysterious author played by Willem Dafoe. Gus takes Hazel to Europe to meet the author and the first part of the trip is regrettably similar to the pseudo-spiritual snake oil of Eat Pray Love. However, The Fault in Our Stars shifts during this trip and the meeting with the author takes unexpected turns that pay off very well. But the filmmakers backtrack in the ending as Dafoe’s character reappears in a way that is unbelievable and sullies the realism of the movie.

Bottom Line: The Fault in Our Stars may start out with some of the clichés of young adult romances but it gradually dismantles most of them. By the end this is a smart and sensitive film about confronting mortality and appreciating the half of the glass that’s full. It’s intended to make the audience cry, but it earns most of its tears.

Episode: #495 (June 14, 2014)