It’s a shame that the modern movie culture in Hollywood automatically causes me to be leery of films like “The Fault in Our Stars”. Sure it’s based on a novel loved by millions, but countless times Hollywood has shown its ineptitude in realizing these kinds of stories on screen. Well this film turned out to be a huge success raking in over $300 million at the box office. But we all know that a hefty box office take doesn’t always signify a quality movie. Thankfully “The Fault in Our Stars” tells a better story and features a compelling lead performance.
Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart and witty teenager who happens to have stage four lung cancer. Her illness started in her thyroid at an early age and she has fought it since. There is no build up towards the severity of her illness. All of the cards are put on the table at the very beginning. We quickly know that she is dying. We quickly sense her day-to-day struggles. She can’t walk long without shortness of breath and we never see her without her oxygen. This is her life and we are given just enough exposition to ground us and prepare us for this story.
Her parents are played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell and they are a breath of fresh air. There is no family dysfunction. There is no abuse. There is no absentee dad. They are stable and loving parents, something rarely depicted in Hollywood these days. Overprotective and obvious? Perhaps. In fact in an early scene Hazel’s mother is convinced her daughter is depressed. She encourages Hazel to join a support group. As fate would have it, she meets a hunky fellow named Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort). At first he reminded me of a stalker, but he soon wins Hazel over with his charming personality and his pearly white smile which the camera captures over and over and over….
Despite being a bit corny, Gus is a good, earnest guy. He lost part of his leg to bone cancer, but it doesn’t seem to dampen his spirits. That’s exactly what Hazel needs. She needs his honesty, his positivity, and of course his love. It’s not that she doesn’t resist. She does show hesitation, but thankfully the film doesn’t wander down that overused and familiar path. Instead it actually presents us with situations and a relationship that feels genuine yet uncertain because of the dark cloud hanging over it.
There is something else I found refreshing about “The Fault in Our Stars”. It was nice to see two teenaged characters without the same hackneyed problems and attitudes that we often get in teen movies. Aside from cancer, Hazel and Gus are smart, well adjusted teens without a host of personal or emotional problems. It was a nice change from the routine damaged bad boy or smart, sharp-witted loner girl. The characters of Hazel and Gus are quite different than that.
Overall the film tells a good story, but it doesn’t mind flipping a few conventional switches. There are a handful of scenes that are so clearly intended to bring on the tears. Some were incredibly cheesy and felt out of place and false. One particular contrivance appears at the end and is too much of a stretch. Then there is Elgort’s performance which is uneven and sporadic. For the most part he has an undeniable charm, but there are also moments where he looks stagy and uncertain. It also doesn’t help that he shares scenes with Woodley. She’s a fabulous young actress who manages this material with conviction and wit. She makes Hazel feel true and authentic even during those few times when the movie doesn’t.
“The Fault in Our Stars” will definitely have many people reaching for their tissue. In fact even I got a bit misty during the moments that played out naturally. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t always feel natural. But I still give it a lot of credit. It has some refreshing components that distance it from the normal teen tripe. It also handles a very difficult subject tenderly and responsibly. And it is yet another showcase for Shailene Woodley, a young actress who seems to get better with every role she takes.