THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (8 of 10) – Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green, and Directed by Josh Boone; starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language. In wide release June 6, 2014: 125 minutes.
Even though I am undeniably not the target demographic for this film, I was quite taken with "The Fault in Our Stars." It's incredibly rare that you can appreciate something that really isn't targeted to you. So, fans of the source material and fans of romantic tearjerker dramadies? You're in luck.
You know a story isn't necessarily going to have a happy ending when your two leads, Hazel (Shailene Woodley -- "The Descendants," "Divergent") and Gus (Ansel Elgort - also, amazingly "Divergent") meet at a cancer support group. However, you also know this movie isn't going to be all tears when the cancer support group is led by comedian Mike Birbiglia, who hams up the few scenes he's in.
So even though the film telegraphs from its opening moments a sense of ominous dread, it's also telling you that it's going to be ok to laugh along the way. And there are lots of genuine laughs, as there are beautiful, tender moments. And heartbreaking sadness. I've either never laughed so much and been so happy at such a tragic story, or ever felt so many emotions at a teen romance. The tagline for this movie should be "All teh Feels!"
So much of the emotion comes from the chemistry between our two leads, so I have to give credit to the actors. I first noticed Woodley in "The Descendants" for her ability in one scene to actually cry underwater. If that's not acting, I don't know what is. And, oh boy, the number of tears she sheds in this movie could fill a small ocean. And Elgort plays Gus with a perfect blend of cockiness and vulnerability.
But the real star is the script. Adapting a novel is never easy, and this film really feels like it is a translation of a book. It's very literary, and retains a lot of those references, even down to some first person narration by Hazel. While that's normally a somewhat cheap trick in screenwriting, in this film it works, as it's used just sparingly enough, in some sense to remind the audience, "Hey, this is a book, too." If nothing else, it's a great way to trick your teen into consuming a lot of Shakespeare without knowing it-- like hiding vegetables in a smoothie.
One of the best parts is that Hazel is the strongest, most well-realized character in the film (while "Gus" is kind of a male version of the manic pixie dream girl, mixed in with some impulsiveness, romanticism and wit of Romeo and Benedick for good measure) and it perfectly represents how I remember my teenage years-- every little thing and event was SO important and weighty, and we SO over-intellectualized everything. We were all 16 going on 60, and it wasn't until our 20's that we calmed down a little bit. In some ways I think I've gotten stupider and less mature since I was 16/17/18. And imagine compounding that by a hundred knowing that you'll probably never live to be 20. But it's great to see Hollywood making a film with more fully-realized female characters than male ones for a change.
Ditto for Laura Dern as Hazel's mom. She also gives one of the best performances of the film, and possibly the best performance of her career. (And no, Scarlet Robotica, at no time does she stick her arm in dinosaur poop or run away from velociraptors)
It's also sex-positive, but also very adult and responsible about it. But it was also very awkward, which I found refreshing and honest.
I'm also not going to spoil one of the best reveals of the film, but when Hazel and Gus track down their favorite reclusive writer in Amsterdam, the actor they have playing him is pitch perfect. When he shows up, my immediate reaction was, "Well, this just got very interesting."
Which isn't to say 'The Fault in Our Stars' isn't without faults. I mentioned Gus being somewhat underdeveloped compared to Hazel, but it's nice to see that boys can be turned into manic pixie dream girls just as easily. Gus teaching Hazel about video games and V for Vendetta is almost the exact analog for Natalie Portman handing Zach Braff her headphones in "Garden State" and telling him that listening to The Shins will change his life. Similarly, Hazel's Dad is nowhere near as developed as her mom, but, again, I think that's forgivable.
It's also a little emotionally manipulative -- ok, a lot -- but, hey, you knew this was a teen romantic dramedy about kids who meet in a cancer support group, right?
But overall, this captured a lot of truth. It didn't feel false or even pretentious, although it could've easily slid into that. And while the year is young, if I'm compiling possible Oscar or Golden Globe nominations, I have to be thinking about this for Best Adapted Screenplay and also Laura Dern for Best Supporting Actress.
My only suggestion is to not see this in a theater full of people likely to giggle and audibly swoon, as you might miss some of the jokes or writing. If you can find a theater with an enforceable no-talking policy, go for it. Or, go to a showing that won't be crowded so you can sit and cry alone in the dark and not worry about disturbing anyone else. This may be a film better enjoyed at home, on your couch surrounded by your best friends and loved ones.
Go see it. But brace yourselves. Not for the faint of heart.