At one point in The Fault In Our Stars, cancer-ridden Hazel Grace Lancaster says “Sometimes people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them.”
Similarly, unless you read the widely popular 2012 John Green novel of the same name, you definitely, absolutely won’t understand what kind of movie you’re sitting down for until you buy a ticket and watch.
TFIOS is the love story of Hazel, a teenager with terminal thyroid cancer who doesn’t concern herself with anything long-term because she doesn’t think she’ll last that long, and Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor – albeit at the expense of a leg – whose only concerns are making an impact for the world to remember before he dies and ensuring that Hazel’s possibly limited time isn’t for naught.
But as your bookworm friends have probably warned you…this is not your average love story. As we are told at the start of the film – when you still have time to get your ticket refunded should you so desire – this is “the truth.”
Fiction vs. truth is one of the central themes of TFIOS, directed by Josh Boone (Stuck In Love). The film utilizes familiar sick story tropes of living in the moment and distractions from disease and a possible defeat of it…and then turns one of those on its head in a conclusion so tragic you’d think it’s Shakespeare. Hazel and Gus are conflicted in their views of what is really happening with their situation, and it is that argument of how the type of love that exists in fiction can possibly survive in their reality that is central to their relationship. At the film’s climax, fiction and reality are one in the same.
Shailene Woodley (Hazel) and Ansel Elgort (Gus) are the film’s bread and butter. It’s hard to imagine two more fitting actors for these characters who go through the widest range of emotions in the film. Woodley (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) continues to establish herself as a dynamic young actress with more charisma than, say, Chloë Grace Moretz. She’s simply believable with a powerful performance, one which peaks at the movie’s most soulful moments. You can see the conflict and doubt in her eyes every time Gus gazes at her, and feel her pain when she struggles with her sickness. Elgort (Carrie, Divergent) as Gus is every young woman’s dream and then some. Confident but not cocky, his presence lights up the screen whenever he is around Hazel, completely convincing us of his feelings for her. He’s predictably swoon-worthy, from the way his yearns for Hazel to the way he’s scared of airplanes.
The supporting cast of Nat Wolff as Hazel and Gus’ blind friend, Willem Dafoe as the young couple’s favorite, yet troubled, author, and Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom also give great performances. Dern’s in particular stands out in an appropriately exaggerated performance as a mother who yearns to see the positive things in her daughter’s life, despite her terminal illness.
The screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber is another strong aspect of TFIOS. The sarcastic but charming nature of Hazel and Gus’ first conversations are balanced by the more ominous and serious ones they have later on, in appropriate fashion. Their dialogue is brimming with quotes that have infiltrated Instagram as selfie captions; this time they hold weight and levity.
That is another driving force of TFIOS; the conversations that Hazel and Gus have. As the film goes on, they grow more and more intimate and you believe the words they are saying, thanks to the script and delivery of the two actors. They evolve from ones in which they don’t really take the other one seriously when they first meet to discussions of pure adoration and determination; namely, Gus’ determination at making Hazel’s limited time mean something. They are young kids dealing with grown-up situations, and they way they go through that journey together alone will have you breaking out the tissues.
The third act of TFIOS lives up to its infamous dark nature. There is a point where the film does take quite an abrupt turn for the eerie, almost to the point where the characters are different from those we’ve adored for most of the movie. You can see it in the way they now dress, in their first real argument, and their faux eulogies. Boone does a fantastic job conveying the melancholy, somber realities that TFIOS takes pride in; after all, we’ve been warned multiple points up to this point it would happen. And it is quite a jarring experience when it finally does.
The one real weakness to TFIOS is a small one, but a weakness nonetheless. The filmmakers obviously want to do a service to fans of the novel, and one way they choose to do that is by having Hazel narrate much of the beginning of the story, of her story. It’s not as much that it doesn’t work, but, in similar fashion to 2013’s The Great Gatsby, it serves at a bit of a distraction at some points. One wonders if the filmmakers could have found a way to omit certain faceless dialogue by Woodley and make the movie feel more natural. Along with that, there are certain points where there is awkward delivery by either Woodley or Elgort of a line where even non-readers of the novel can tell it’s from its pages, and sometimes it just doesn’t translate well. But that’s a trifle complaint for a script that’s overall on point.
The thing that makes TFIOS unique is its villain. Every film needs one, and the one we have in this film is stubbornness. You see it in the two young lovers, in different ways. You see it in Hazel’s parents, unwilling to see the glass half empty for a change. You feel it in the film’s dark realities, perhaps too stubborn to give Hazel and Grace a happy ending. For a moment, the film’s villain even triumphs.
It’s hard to understand what kind of movie The Fault In Our Stars is until you sit down, endure through it, and watch. That task is easier said than done.
But if you do reach the end mentally stable, The Fault In Our Stars tells us that it’s okay to have to endure. In the end, it’ll be worth it as long as we were in the moment.
In a Nutshell
The movie adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars is a mature, philosophical film about how we spend our limited days, and successfully conveys feelings of melancholy and yearning for simplicity which, as Hazel Grace implies, just isn’t reality. Woodley and Elgort shine with a humorous, mature script, and you won’t leave with a dry eye.
8.5 / 10 or Go see this movie and cry, or i’ll cry over your poor choices.
The Fault In Our Stars is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
Directed by Josh Boone
**note** This reviewer has not read the book.