I went to see The Fault in Our Stars on a Tuesday evening in a movie theater peppered with impossibly young-looking teenage couples. Maybe it was my company or maybe it was the way John Green captures the voice of teenagers—for better and for worse—so well, but I struggled for the first half hour of the movie against the somewhat uncomfortable memory of what it was like to be seventeen. That, I think, is the secret to Green's success and why I think it's so hard for me as an adult to evaluate this film fairly. The Fault in Our Stars is sometimes far too sentimental and sometimes so beautifully deep, but all the way through it rings true to the way intelligent teenagers think when they still think they know everything. And then there's the cancer.
The Fault in Our Stars is the love story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), teenagers who meet in a support group for kids with cancer. Although Hazel resists because she's depressed and terminally ill, Hazel and Augustus's friendship blossoms into an intense young love. Gus helps get Hazel off the couch and smiling again, much to the delight of her parents, Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell). Meanwhile, Hazel's love of Gus (however anxious it may be) does a lot of good for Gus's ego, as the teen's biggest fear is oblivion. He wants to be a hero and to be remembered for living a great life. Early in their friendship, Hazel gives Gus a book to read by the reclusive author Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). She loves the book because of how well it captures what it feels like to be dying. The book, however, ends in the middle of a sentence when the narrator dies, leaving Hazel with burning questions about what happens to the rest of the characters. Gus writes Van Houten and, long story short, they end up going to Amsterdam to meet him. And then, as you might expect, things get really sad.
I haven't read the book, so I cannot speak totally accurately to the adaptation, but given the reactions of the other people in the theater, I can say the film nailed its target demographic. As if on cue, the teens laughed at all of the right moments and at the end of the movie I could hear the snot throughout the theater. I'll admit I was crying too. The story was obviously condensed for the movie, cutting out some of the aspects about resisting the expected narratives about cancer, but the plot moves along at a steady pace, keeping the audience engaged and somewhat anxious about the lovers' fates.
The performances given by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort capture the chemistry between the characters, as well as the pain they're going through with stunning clarity. Woodley has got to be one of the most talented actresses of her generation. I think that I rolled my eyes at Elgort for the first act of the movie testifies to how well he captured the essence of seventeen-year-old boys. As Hazel's parents Dern and Trammell balance concern with attempts to mask their pain, a feat that I'm assuming is not easy in its subtlety. Willem Dafoe is vile, which means he did his job. As Gus's friend Isaac, Nat Wolff is so adorable and funny he nearly steals all shared scenes with Elgort.
The problem I'm having with The Fault in Our Stars is that it is a pretty sentimental love story. As much as I love romance, traditionally sentimentality is the low road. And yet, The Fault in Our Stars works. It's funny and sad and it manages to dwell on deep matters without losing its teen spirit. It's not going to win Best Picture, but it does what it's supposed to do pretty darn effectively. In the fight between rolling my eyes and crying them out, the tears won pretty quickly.
For connecting with its target audience and for outstanding performances, despite the sometimes overly sentimental nature of the story, I rate The Fault in Our Stars 4/5 stars.
The Fault in Our Stars was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapted from the novel by John Green. It was directed by Josh Boone and runs 125 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.