Trying to distract her mom, Frannie (Laura Dern), from the idea that her incurable cancer prognosis has driven her into depression, sixteen year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, "Divergent") returns to the support group she despises and meets former high school basketball jock Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort, "Divergent"), who's lost a leg but is in remission. Knowing her fate, she initially resists her attraction to him, but Gus is persistent and their unconventional approaches to life make them bond deeply in "The Fault in Our Stars."
Featuring a pitch perfect performance from Shailene Woodley, "The Spectacular Now" screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber's slavishly faithful adaptation of John Green’s 2012 bestseller just may do what "Divergent" did not - score repeat business from a sure-to-be-pleased built in fan base. The film's far from perfect - director Josh Boone ("Stuck in Love") favors too many in your face closeups and the character of Augustus Waters is written a little too perfectly to seem like a real person - but on the whole, this teen romance is more thoughtful than most.
Most of only child Hazel's short life has been focused on the disease which almost took her life before until an experimental treatment stemmed the tide. She spends most of her time lost in her favorite book, Peter Van Houten's (Willem Dafoe) 'An Imperial Affliction,' about a young girl with a similar fate. She's also strongly aware of her illness's impact on her parents ('True Blood's' Sam Trammell plays dad Michael), believing their eventual grief will be worse than what she's had to endure.
After enduring counselor Patrick's (Mike Birbiglia, "Sleepwalk With Me") 'sacred heart of Jesus' circle, where she's fired back at Gus's comment about fearing oblivion, Hazel's surprised when he approaches her afterward. An immediate invite to hang out thrills mom and Gus proposes he read her book if she in turn reads his favorite, a novelization of his favorite video game. Gus is astonished by the book, but also frustrated by its ending, and he accomplishes something Hazel has tried but not succeeded at - getting a reply from the book's author. When a giddy Hazel uses the email address he's procured, she not only finally gets a reply, but an invite to visit the man in Amsterdam. As much as the Lancasters want to fulfill her dream, they can't afford the trip, but Gus has an ace up his sleeve.
As only a few facets of the novel have been dropped, both its pluses and minuses are apparent in the movie. Kids with cancer isn't a happy subject, but both an understanding of how all consuming the disease is to its sufferers and their families and a healthy dose of gallows humor raises "The Fault in Our Stars" above the average weepie. The latter gets a workout via the character of Isaac (Nat Wolff, "Palo Alto"), Gus's friend who's about to lose his second eye and, unexpectedly, his girlfriend. Isaac and Monica's (Emily Peachey) constant sweet nothing has ironically been 'Always,' which leads to Gus and Hazel finding meaning in the repetition of 'Okay.' While some of these character tics work, like Gus's teasing Hazel over her having squandered her cancer 'wish' with a cliched trip to Disneyland, others, like Gus's 'metaphorical' unlit cigarette, seem forced, overwritten. Social media and smartphone usage is a natural, but hand written text messages in hand drawn cartoon pop-ups are not. The trip to Amsterdam (the only part of the film where Boone's direction has visual interest) doesn't take the expected path, but a romantic breakthrough in the Anne Frank house, of all places, is a questionable bit of doubling down, and the story's ultimate ending should be seen a mile away. Musical selections lean towards the overly prettified and overly literal. Costume is nicely understated.
Woodley is so good here, she sells the whole package. Wearing little makeup, a cannula and dragging an oxygen tank (if a third instance pops up after this and 'Bates Motel,' we'll have a trend), the actress makes it entirely plausible she'd be thought beautiful by a boy two years older - she's radiant, her eyes shining with intelligence. There is an excess of narration, but Woodley handles the task as if talking to a friend. Elgort, who played Woodley's brother in "Divergent," has little opportunity to be anything other than perfect, but while extraordinary displays of patience seem supernatural he nails moments of humor like Gus's reaction to his first airplane trip. Dern is quite affecting as Hazel's mom, expressing a life of joy mixed with deep sadness, although Boone and editor Robb Sullivan's timing with her entrances and exits can feel abrupt (just where is Frannie during those three days in Amsterdam?). Dafoe does well by another strangely written character, but as his assistant Lidewij, Lotte Verbeek (Showtime's 'The Borgias') is too glamorous by half. Nat Wolff portrays the anger Hazel and Gus (mostly) avoid and has a way with sarcasm.
Robin did not see this film.
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