“This is not a story where beautiful people learn beautiful lessons,” Shailene Woodley’s cancer-stricken realist Hazel cautions, even though she seems to be suffering from the kind of movie cancer that gives her a glowing tan. While the trailers for The Fault In Our Stars have done little to support this notion, focusing on the mawkish romanticism of two star-crossed lovers escaping to Europe, director Josh Boon actually eschews the schmaltz and emotional gushing in favour of a refreshingly dark wit for this sweet-but-melancholy take on the John Green’s best-selling novel.
Like the book, this is a first-person account of 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster’s battle with thyroid cancer. Diagnosed aged 13, Hazel deals with her illness with an irreverent humour and acerbic bon mots (“I’m like the Keith Richards of cancer kids.”), refusing to conform to the conventions expected of a sick teen, and by extension her genre, even though the feeling that she will never get the chance to live a normal life clings to her like the cumbersome oxygen tank that is always by her side.
Worried their daughter is depressed because she spends all day binging on trashy reality shows and obsessing over cancer-themed novel ‘An Imperial Affliction’, Hazel’s loving, upbeat parents gently force her to attend a support group in a church basement – unless your loopy Jesus freak Patrick, in which case it’s “literally the heart of Jesus.”
There she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort), an assured former jock bubbling with life-affirming philosophies imbued by the cancer that also took his right leg. Through a series of corny dates and flirty texts (smartly imposed onscreen by Boone), Gus lifts Hazel out of her funk and shows her that she doesn’t have to be defined by her disease.
At times this can’t help but be overly schmaltzy, such as Gus and Hazel’s expanded sojourn in Amsterdam where their first kiss is met with credibility-stretching applause from museum patrons, but more often than not TFIOS looks to subvert expectations.
The fact that the manic pixie dream girl is male is just one of the clever twists thrown up here, with Gus also regarded as the more inexperienced of the two, being a hopeless virgin who has never been abroad. The film similarly takes time to examine the effect Hazel’s condition has on her parents beyond simply being obliviously over protective. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell turn in delicate performances as the gentle parents wavering between keeping their daughter safe and allowing her to enjoy what little life she has remaining.
Likewise, the performances of its young stars never fail to impress. Woodley is perfect throughout, delivering Hazel’s sharp wit and determination with just a hint of the fear that always lurks close to the surface as she fights to remain strong for her parents. Elgort does well to make the most of a limited character early on, using his unconventional charm to make tediously pretentious Gus somehow likeable. Only when Gus’ character is flipped on his head by an unexpected turn of events (for anyone who hasn’t read the book anyway) does he become interesting, as his demons, so well hidden up to this point, begin to take control of his life.
Writers Michael H. Webber and Scott Neustadter may excel in crafting a darkly funny, uniquely observed take on the teen cancer genre, but they also have the ability to reduce their audience to tears. The humour is punctured by moments of intense pain that come seemingly out of nowhere to remind us that infinity is incredibly finite for this nascent couple. The Spectacular Now-duo pass up numerous chances to revert to type, eluding melodrama and tidy resolutions in order to force the audience to accept that not everything can be solved by love and wishful thinking. Sometimes people just have to learn to live with the pain.
Runtime: 126 minutes; Genre: Romance/Comedy; Released: 19 June 2014
Director: Josh Boone; Writers: Michael H. Webber, Scott Neustadter
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell
Click here to watch the trailer for The Fault In Our Stars