Overview: A cancer stricken teen meets a cancer survivor who changes her perspective. Temple Hill Entertainment; 2014; Rated PG-13; 125 Minutes.
The Young Adult Question: A lot has been discussed about who should take audience to Young Adult literature/movies and how these works should be measured. I’ll contribute this: Mark Twain intended The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for adolescent audiences. Once upon a time, Lord of the Flies was a standard junior high text. These are two profoundly figurative works of literature, with symbolism deeply mapped. In The Fault in Our Stars, a film based on a beloved Young Adult novel, dashing male lead Ansel Elgort as cancer survivor Augustus dangles an unlit cigarette in his mouth. “It’s a metaphor, Hazel Grace,” he explains to his soon-to-be star-crossed lover. He says that. Out loud.
A Faultless Star: There is nothing inherently wrong with a movie’s decision to be intellectually unambitious or to commit itself to purely emotional pursuit. Even for those who haven’t read the book, the end of this story should be a predictable one. With cancer-influenced plots, there’s an unspoken contractual agreement wherein the viewer signs his/her emotions over to an inevitable conclusion. In return, viewers should be able to expect emotional honesty. Here, audiences get that and more from the movie’s young starlet. Shailene Woodley has an uncanny ability to organically occupy a role. She hits every note perfectly, with natural ease, likability, and convincing presence. Credit needs to be given to scriptwriters Scott Neudstater and Michael H. Weber who have teased greatness with Woodley before (in a better film). Woodley is a star waiting for the right material. The Fault in Our Stars isn’t it, but when this movie does succeed, it succeeds because of her.
A Shaded Shimmer: Outward from Woodley, the sincerity falters. Elgort occupies the role of Augustus with only one comfortable presentation of character. He is adequate in his carefree back-leaning posture and sideways-glancing bemused smirk, but when the movie leans on him for heavier material, he doesn’t hold the weight as comfortably as Woodley. If Elgort seems a little too self-satisfied in the second act, who can fault him, given the context offered by the film. From its opening voiceover monologue, The Fault in Our Stars announces its intent to separate itself from similar works about love and cancer. Again, it’s right there, stated in the script. Hazel implies that this is not one of those “polished” cancer stories. But that’s a lie. This is a movie as polished as any teen love story. The entire second act is constructed mainly to allow Ansel to walk into different rooms so Hazel can swoon. That’s a form of polishing. The text bubbles and e-mail fade shots are a form of polishing. The heavy handed musical cues are a method of polishing that suggest that sometimes, this movie is afraid of its own inherent heaviness. The film’s insistence on its own uniqueness does not make the film unique any more than sweat pants, labored breathing, and an ever-present oxygen tube make it an unflinching look at cancer. It’s really neither of those things.
A Necessary Note: Worse than all of those earlier methods of film “polishing,” Director Josh Boone and his editing team employ a trick that is downright insulting and it can’t go unmentioned. As the two lovers make their way up the stairs of the Anne Frank house, the scene is scored by audio quotes from The Diary of Anne Frank. At the top, they share a kiss. There is no justifiable reason that a fictionalized Hollywood movie, no matter how accurate a representation of a real suffering, should be permitted to rent the real echoes of suffering from one of the most horrible events in human history, just to decorate a kiss amongst two beautiful stars. That is stupid, vapid, and dangerously ethnocentric. This is a very poor directorial decision which nearly derailed my interest in the rest of the film.
The Great and Terrible Ten: In the end, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie that offers moments of poignancy, humor, and clarity. If the movie had accepted itself for what it was– a standard cancer movie and a standard teen romance– it might have been a much better version of both. But those dark spots of ego and smug self-awareness are evidence of a debilitating but bearable condition. That’s a metaphor.