The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has a pair of lungs that is not very good at being lungs. Her thyroid cancer, diagnosed when she was thirteen, has spread downward over time so liquid tends to accumulate in her breathing organ. Thus, she is required to haul around an oxygen tank that will enable her to inhale and exhale with ease.
Attending a support group for cancer patients, one she insists on not attending but does so anyway in order to make her parents feel better, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma survivor. The cancer was once in his right leg so the doctors decided it had to go in order to save his life. The two have no idea of the love—one that goes beyond cute and romance—that they are about to share.
Based on the acclaimed novel by John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars” is, for the most part, an effective drama about teenagers who have or have had cancer. There is an honesty to the picture that is absent in many other movies that feature characters afflicted by the devastating disease which makes it head and shoulders above films of its type. Pair the quality screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a relevant topic—a young person dealing with one’s mortality—and what results is a work with a high level of pathos while elegantly balancing romance, tragedy, and comedy.
The lead performance is outstanding. When I heard news that Woodley would be playing Hazel, I knew she would be perfect for the role because in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” she has shown that she is not a one-dimensional performer. I feel she has very sad eyes. The longer the camera stares at them, sadder moments are amplified while lighter moments create a fascinating, magnetic contradiction. We always wonder what Hazel is thinking which is exactly the point because even though she may not admit to it verbally, she is afraid to die. In one important scene, she describes herself as a grenade. In some ways, she is.
I wish I can say the same about Elgort. Gifted with angelic good looks, the actor tries to embody the very charismatic Gus and match Woodley’s natural intensity, but he consistently comes up short by comparison. Notice that in some scenes, his character has a limp; in others, it is absent completely.
Some missteps are less elementary. When certain lines are better delivered by relishing every moment, he tends to rush which gives the impression that he is nervous. Perhaps he was intimidated by his more experienced co-star, I do not know for sure, but there are times when he took me out of the moment instead of further getting me into it. Still, Woodley and Elgort do share believable chemistry.
It shows a taste of how scary and ugly cancer can be while still being mindful of its target audience. Keep in mind that the picture is not a documentary about how it is really like for a person to have cancer, but there are enough details to keep one engaged. For instance, it gives us an idea of a routine a cancer patient might have—constant doctor visits, the amount of pills to be consumed three times a day, attending support group, always being watched closely—and how the disease can dig its claws suddenly and let go, for the time being, just as abruptly.
For the most part, its approach is to focus on the emotional struggles of its characters. Best exemplified is the relationship between Hazel and her mother (Laura Dern). Although Elgort is not able to match Woodley’s subtleties, Dern hits the right spot every single time. There are moments when I wished that the story would focus more on the fears shared between a mother and her child.
Dern proves to be a great conduit. She allows those who have never been a parent to feel some of her character’s struggle of being a mother who wants to cherish every moment with her daughter just in case the good days are numbered while at the same time allowing Hazel to live her life the way she wants it. And that means giving her daughter some space, some freedom.
Directed by Josh Boone, “The Fault in Our Stars” is appropriately titled because less discerning eyes can go into it and be convinced that its flaws are negligible, that it is so-called perfect just the way it is—and that is all right. But in my eyes, even though I enjoyed the picture as a whole, there are enough miscalculations to draw a difference between a truly engrossing experience every step of the way and that of a work which requires a bit more fire and polishing in order to set a standard.