“I’m a grenade.”
Some movies disappoint. Others never live up to their full potential. And then there are films like The Fault in Our Stars that are everything you’d imagine them to be and more. I sat alone, amongst the legions of sanguine teenage girls, hopefully awaiting an honest screen adaptation of a beloved novel that’s inspired by its author’s own experiences. And for the last half hour, all I heard were stifled sobs and sniffles, reassuringly masked by the theater’s darkness. This movie builds you up to let you down. But it’s not a trick. It doesn’t rely on gallows humor alone to keep it going. Just like its two amazingly unique and idiosyncratic main characters describe pain, this is a film that demands to be felt. Only a robot could fend off the waterworks.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a sardonic teenager who has lived the majority of her terminal life with metastatic thyroid cancer. Beautifully portrayed by the wholesome Woodley, Hazel goes about her days with a constant chip on her shoulder. She lugs around her oxygen tank and has her cannula on for nearly the entire movie. Hazel would rather watch America’s Next Top Model reruns than go to the boring support groups run by the Christ loving Patrick (played by the dependably hilarious Mike Birbiglia). Alas, she goes, hoping to appease her mother’s desire for her to meet new people. And does she ever.
Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a PG-13 James Dean for the current generation. He’s equal parts cocky and charming, never letting either quality sway too far ahead of the other. Elgort sports a leather jacket and a persistent grin that is unshakable. And then he talks, not just about his cancer and how he only has one good leg, but about the important things in life. Gus tells things how they are. He meets Hazel at support group and within an hour tells her she is beautiful. If you’ve already beat death once, why be afraid of a pretty girl? An outstanding scene involving the character’s trademark cigarette almost halts the entire story. But as per norm, Gus explains his unusual logic, and we understand where he is coming from. He’s almost too likable for his own good.
Gus and Hazel begin their courtship, although at the beginning the two would most definitely deny to call it that. They’re friends. Gus calls her to help when his imminently blind friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) gets dumped by his girlfriend. She introduces Gus to her favorite novel called An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. It’s about a girl with cancer and her family. As it is in the book, this plot point almost too clearly eludes to Hazel, and her desire to know what will happen to those she loves once her cancer time bomb finally goes off.
The fictional novel plays as big of a role in the story as the entire supporting cast. It ends in the middle of a sentence, and Gus and Hazel long to know what happens next. Gus digs up the email address of Van Houten’s secretary, and to Hazel’s surprise they begin a correspondence. The reclusive author promises to shed light “should they ever be in Amsterdam.” A far distance from Indianapolis. However, Gus surprises Hazel, and uses his cancer wish to send them across the pond, along with her mother. Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) is a drunk who berates them and refuses to answer their silly questions. It doesn’t get them down. They dine under the stars, sip champagne, and admire each other’s death outfits (the fancy clothes picked out should they pass away). For all of the happiness, all of the endearing gazes and discovery of first love, heartache lies just around the corner. Cancer is involved after all.
Written by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (The Spectacular Now, (500) Days of Summer), the pair do a terrific job balancing the humor with the maudlin moments. The movie sticks close to its source material. Big chunks of the dialogue are verbatim from the novel, and the actors take the words and run with them. Director Josh Boone smartly sits back and lets his talented actors really act. Every performance is affecting, including the parents played by Sam Trammell and Laura Dern. One scene of theirs, a flashback to Hazel as a child in the hospital, telling her it’s okay to let go, is absolutely brutal.
But it’s no surprise that the most noteworthy contributions are made by Woodley and Elgort. Woodley is already receiving potential Oscar nominee buzz for her performance. She could have easily played Hazel the same as her character Aimee in The Spectacular Now. They’re similar, but here she brings to life an earnest, thoughtful young woman, determined to devastate as few people as she can while cancer continues to be her prolonged coup de grace. Even so, I think Elgort is the heart of the movie. He’s a showstopper, stealing every moment of every scene he’s in. Gus Waters is a sacred character to a loyal fan base, and he delivers a performance that is every bit as memorable on-screen as it is on the page. Gus might seem inauthentic, but he doesn’t care. And neither should you, because this is fiction. So what if you don’t think a person like Gus could be real. All you have to do is imagine it.
There are a couple of editing problems scattered throughout, like noticeable moments when you hear the characters talking but their mouths don’t coincide. It has a few questionable soundtrack decisions, and a scene in the Anne Frank house that seems terribly out of place. But I don’t think those really matter. People don’t go to the movies to sit there looking comatose. We go to experience something. Excitement, laughter, terror, sadness. You have that realization by the time the movie ends, no matter what emotion it is stirring inside you. This isn’t just a cancer story. It’s a story of young love with a stamped expiration date. Hazel Grace Lancaster reminds us that some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Life’s uncertain like that. Some things are simply out of our control, and as the title suggests, maybe the fault lies with the stars and not with ourselves. See this movie, not just to cry or to get a lump in your throat (you’ll do both regardless). See it to remember the fragility of existence, and to recall that as Gus says, “It’s a good life.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5