Movie Review: “The Fault In Our Stars” Is Downbeat, But Not A Downer

How’s this for a logline? Two cancer-ridden teens fall in love while coping with their fatal diseases. If this strikes you as a particularly depressing pitch for a summer film, you aren’t alone. And yet, as proven by the bestselling young adult novel by John Green on which the film is adapted, “The Fault In Our Stars” is a story that strikes a chord with its teenage consumers and may turn out to be the biggest sleeper hit of the summer.

There’s no denying the book’s popularity; it’s been the bestselling YA novel for forty-three weeks. Not only does it hold that impressive distinction, the movie trailer is the most “liked” in YouTube history and has racked up over twenty million views to date.

But the question remains: does the film do justice to the book and its legion of fans, or Nerdfighters, as they endearingly refer to themselves? 

The short answer is yes. It’s a faithful adaptation that will no doubt leave its many rabid fans satisfied with the results. Whether the film will appeal to a broader audience outside of the novel’s largely teen readership is not altogether clear. Anchored by charismatic performances by the two young leads, compassionate direction, and a strong script that successfully blends tragedy, romance and humor, “The Fault In Our Stars” is a sometimes depressing but ultimately uplifting film that should cater to those with a soft spot for romances and coming of age tales.

For the uninitiated, “The Fault In Our Stars” is about a sixteen year-old terminal cancer patient named Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley). Confined to a portable oxygen tank on account of her thyroid cancer having spread to her lungs, Hazel is not coping well with her illness. After trying antidepressant medications to questionable success, Hazel agrees to attend a cancer patient support group in hopes of lifting her spirits (and placating her mother, played with warmth and affection by Laura Dern). There, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who once had osteosarcoma which resulted in his leg being amputated, but currently he’s cancer-free and in attendance in support of his friend, Isaac(Nat Wolff).

When the two meet, their attraction is instantaneous, even though their personalities clash. Whereas Hazel is sarcastic and cynical, Augustus is free-spirited and lives in the moment. Nevertheless, they exchange their favorite novels as a way of getting to know each other better and quickly fall in love.

Hazel’s favorite book is called “Imperial Affliction,” which deals with similar issues that she’s struggling with in her own life. Written by an enigmatic writer named Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the book ends on an ambiguous note, and Hazel has one wish before she dies: to find out its meaning from the author himself. When Augustus learns of this wish, he gets in touch with van Houten’s representatives and organizes a trip for Hazel to meet the reclusive author in Amsterdam. 

As the film progresses, the story focuses on the couple’s passionate relationship, some unexpected setbacks related to their illnesses, and also helping their friend Isaac deal with the loss of his eyesight and a bad breakup.

Although Shailene Woodley’s endearing performance as the terminally ill Hazel Grace Lancaster anchors the film, and relative newcomer Ansel Elgort is a charming presence as her fellow cancer patient and love interest, the film at times feels too beholden to the book, most obviously in the dialogue. The conversations between Hazel and Augustus often come across as either too on-the-nose or unrealistically intellectual, at least for teenage characters. Also, the many proclamations of unconditional love between the two characters grow tiresome, even for the sappier moviegoers. Still, the explosive chemistry between Woodley and Elgort make up for any shortcomings in this aspect of the script. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell also lend emotional credibility to the roles of Hazel’s parents as they struggle to cope with their terminally ill child.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are certainly in their element with this type of material, as evidenced by two of their previous collaborations, “500 Days of Summer,” and “The Spectacular Now.” In those films, they were more successful in capturing the speech patterns and emotional hang-ups of adolescents and young adults – although, to be fair, this story is more concerned with accurately depicting teens living with cancer. Nevertheless, in the first and second acts, they do an excellent job balancing the characters’ funny gallows humor with the underlying tragedy of their condition. The third act is less successful in this respect, but that’s more a result of the story’s inherent sadness than a misstep by the screenwriters.

Director Josh Boone (“Stuck In Love”) should be commended for what must have been a truly daunting undertaking. Making a film is hard enough, but trying to please a fan base as passionate as the Nerdfighters is something else entirely. Boone isn’t afraid to tackle the heavy existential topics that the screenplay focuses on, and along the way he collects some great performances out of his actors. The film gets a little too carried away in this respect – at times, it feels as though all anyone discusses is love, death, and cancer – but, again, it’s handled compassionately and, given the subject, it comes with the territory.

By Lucas Mirabella

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language

125 minutes


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