Director: Josh Boone
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: June 6th, 2014
Screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter have a great talent for writing about young people in a way that speaks to them honestly and without reservation. In the past few years, about it they successfully brought a young love story to life in (500) Days and Summer (2009) and they adapted a young adult novel about an alcoholic high school student in The Spectacular Now (2013).
But their latest feature project— The Fault in our Stars— may have been their most difficult assignment yet.
Not only did they have to adapt a beloved book that has spent over 70 weeks on the bestseller’s list but they had to tell a story as sentimental and sad as it gets. The story is about two teenagers who fall in love while battling terminal cancer. There were so many ways in which the screenwriters could overdo the sentimentality, sacrificing characters for easy tears and dialogue for sappy sequences.
To their great credit, the screenwriters never fall into that trap.
Instead they imbue both of their leads with a teenager’s passions and pride. Hazel (Shailene Woodley), the main character, is a fiercely honest teen who tries to never shy away from the truth. In fact, she loves seeing herself as an unsentimental teenager who knowingly accepts her fate. When she introduces the tragic story in a voice-over, she notes “This is the truth. Sorry.”
Gus (Ansel Elgort), the teen she develops a relationship with ,flies above the honesty of his situation— he lost his leg to cancer but is in recovery— and finds himself looking down at those who languish in pain. “I’m a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend,” he says to the Jesus-loving counselor who leads their cancer support group. At first, Hazel and Gus share divergent philosophies but as they begin a relationship together, they seem to develop some of their partners’ characteristics.
The story eventually focuses in on Hazel’s love for an elusive author who wrote a fictional book about cancer but the feature’s main focus is always on these two characters as they learn about one another and see a different way of looking at life and death. It’s in many ways a more tragic vision of the characters from (500) Days of Summer. In that feature, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) idealistically believed in true love while his on-again/ off-again girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) never did. The two were on reverse sides of the argument but found a kinship with one another as Hazel and Gus eventually do.
Here, love is an afterthought— an unprepared-for experience that Hazel and Gus discover for the first time. Neither of these characters are worried about true love or finding that special someone. They are worried about surviving and making sure that their loved ones can survive without them and that even if they do, the teenagers won’t be forgotten the minute the cancer overcomes them.
It’s true that there are times where the script’s themes about overcoming death feel too overt. A sequence involving the couple’s first kiss in a sacred house feels a bit much and felt a little bizarre. And the character of the author depicted here–a cameo I won’t give away–felt a bit one-dimensional and obvious (his noble decision in the third act felt completely uncharacteristic).
It’s hard to accept some of those choices in the overall narrative but it’s even harder not to appreciate the love story that brings the two main characters together. Even though the story never sides away from their tragic circumstances, it never plays them up either and it never forgets the people who stand by Hazel and Gus’ side. From the Gus’ heartbroken friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), a fellow cancer patient, to the Hazel’s heart-breaking mother Frannie (Laura Dern, who plays her character with an unforgettable authenticity), these minor characters play an integral part in this story.
The Fault in Our Stars is heart-warming, heart-breaking and is a huge testament to those involved in bringing this story to the big screen. It may break your heart but it’s worth seeing and falling in love with.
That’s the truth and despite what Hazel states, there’s no need to apologize for that.
Review by: John Hanlon