September 2022

The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

DIRECTOR: Josh Boone

CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff


An adaptation of John Green’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name, The Fault In Our Stars could be seen as a sort of cousin of 2011’s 50/50 (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the way it takes an irreverent approach to a subject as difficult as cancer without neglecting the underlying seriousness of the situation. The emphasis here is more on romance; calling it a teen romantic comedy-drama with a side of cancer (or is it a cancer movie with a side of teen romantic comedy-drama?) might be an oversimplification, but it sums it up in a nutshell. The story is formulaic, but it’s bumped up by a nice touch with character interaction and the appeal and chemistry of stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The result is not an exceptional film, but a nice little bittersweet story both poignant and life-affirming that like 50/50 manages to tell a “cancer story” without being mawkish and melodramatic about it.

The story unfolds from the viewpoint and sporadic running narration of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), whose cancer is in remission but carries around an oxygen cylinder because her lungs are poorly-functioning and prone to filling with liquid. Hazel is resigned to her own mortality until her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) enrolling a reluctant Grace in an unhelpful support group leads to a chance encounter with Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), an exuberant free spirit who lost a leg to cancer but now appears completely healthy. The two bond, flirt, exchange an endless string of text messages, and move from friendship to something more until Hazel hits the brakes, deciding that since her future is precarious, it would only end up hurting him to pursue a relationship with her. Gus, however, is undeterred. Meanwhile, with Gus’ help, Hazel pursues a dream to travel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author, mysterious recluse Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

The basic narrative of The Fault In Our Stars is formulaic, and there are times, as in many of these kinds of “hip” teen comedy-dramas, where the characters sometimes speak in ways that verge on affectedly offbeat, like a screenwriter showing off his quirky wit rather than the way people actually talk. The movie also arguably veers into standard-issue “tearjerking cancer movie” emotional manipulation with a twist in the eleventh hour, where it plainly determines to leave no dry eyes in the theater. But like 50/50, it finds—for the most part—an effective balance between light humor and acknowledging the underlying grim seriousness of the circumstances (screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber previously showed a deft touch mixing breezy humor and poignancy with 2009’s sleeper hit 500 Days of Summer). Hazel’s running narration doesn’t shy away from occasionally going into detail of her various medical procedures in matter-of-fact fashion, and the character interaction is nicely-realized, due in large part to the chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. Woodley plays Hazel with a matter-of-fact seriousness beyond her years brought about by an intimate awareness of her own mortality to which most young people her age are cheerfully oblivious, tempered by a little offbeat acerbic humor. Elgort (who previously played Woodley’s brother in Divergent) brings an easy charm to the livelier, more flamboyant role of Gus, who comes in like a ray of sunshine and refuses to be discouraged by her reticence. This is their movie, but Laura Dern brings a nice warmth to Hazel’s mother, whose role is slightly meatier than is the usual case for parents in teen movies. Other supporting roles include True Blood‘s Sam Trammell as Hazel’s father, Nat Wolff as Gus’ best friend, and Willem Dafoe who has basically a glorified cameo late in the proceedings as the mysterious author Peter Van Houten, who embodies the lesson that sometimes those idolized from afar can be disappointing in person.

There’s nothing exceptional about The Fault In Our Stars, but it’s a nice little movie, by turns both uplifting and tearjerking, that like 50/50 takes a refreshingly irreverent approach to the “cancer movie”, and gets a boost from the appeal of stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. If it eventually slips into tear-jerking aimed at getting viewers reaching for their Kleenex, the journey there goes down easily and pleasantly due to its simple charms. It’s a worthy entry for those to whom this kind of movie appeals (you know who you are).

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