Okay, just to get it out of the way–I did not cry while watching The Fault in Our Stars. Directed by Josh Boone, and based on the wildly popular novel by John Green, many reviews of the film have cited that it is a three-or-more hankie picture. But if I didn’t cry, I did come to admire the movie, as it slowly eroded my cynicism into dust.
I did read the book, and the the film is incredibly faithful. I forgot some of the sequence of events, so when I wondered whether the film would cut the visit to the Anne Frank House (where our two leads share their first kiss), oops, there it was, in every detail. I’m sure this is to avoid angering a legion of the books fans, but also the book was written in a cinematic style, and though it’s a little long, the film doesn’t suffer by that fidelity.
But it does suffer from, at least through the first half or so, in its fidelity to the character of Augustus Waters. Played with a kind of facile charm by Ansel Elgort (a name that seems like an anagram of another name), he is the boy that the film’s narrator, Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) meets and falls in love with. He’s outgoing and cocky, and though he’s lost a leg from cancer he still seems perfect in every way. Naturally Woodley is overwhelmed by his attention, but if I were her dad I’d be wary, as he speaks like a confidence man.
The two meet in a cancer support group, and the film, like the book, is full of inside dope on cancer sufferers. The film also claims to be a different sort of romance, one that doesn’t need Peter Gabriel songs, which is both a knock on the superior Say Anything and ignorant of the many sappy songs on this soundtrack. She has cancer that requires her to use an oxygen tank at all times, and her cannula becomes part of her face, almost like a bow in her hair or long earrings.
The crux of the film is their visit to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author of Woodley’s favorite book. The author is played by Willem Dafoe (when I read the book I pictured someone much more wormy, like Wallace Shawn). Things don’t go well on that front, but the two have an idealized trip that climaxes, so to speak, with a tasteful sexual encounter. Of course, in a movie about not one but two kids with cancer, there is bound to be a sad ending, and that we get.
There are two things that pushed this movie into a thumbs-up. One is how the film acknowledges the way teenagers see things as all or nothing. Today, at the ripe-old age I am, I listen to teens say that they are going to have so many kids and live in a house that has this or that and do this or that job, with a kind of certainty that makes an adult’s inner eyes roll, as they don’t know how life can fuck up plans. There’s some of that here, too, but with these kids there isn’t a long future to look forward to, and epic pronouncements aren’t just a by-product of youth, they are appropriate and necessary. So when they end up writing eulogies for each other, it doesn’t come off as twee, but deadly realistic.
The other reason to praise this film is Woodley, one of the best young actresses working today. What’s so good about her, as it was in The Spectacular Now, is that she is so un-actorly. Whenever there’s a chance to chew scenery, she takes a different approach, making Hazel much more authentic. Also, as in The Spectacular Now, she has a great way of responding to a boy telling her she’s beautiful. Woodley has being embarrassed down pat.
I also liked Laura Dern, as Woodley’s mother. As Woodley says, the only thing worse than being a kid with cancer is having a kid with cancer. Dern captures the difficulty of being in such a situation. And she kind of looks like she could be Woodley’s mother.
My grade for The Fault in Our Stars: B-.