“This is the truth. Sorry.”
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying. That’s the truth. Sorry. Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) doesn’t care. That’s also the truth. Sorry. Based on the beloved novel of the same name by John Green, Josh Boone’s “The Fault in Our Stars” commits the ballad of Hazel and Gus to the big screen (kicking off with an apologetic voiceover from Hazel, who promises to tell us only the truth), and sticking to the choppy emotional structure of the relentlessly popular YA novel proves to be the production’s wisest decision. Despite some early missteps in performance and the cutting of an essential subplot, the charming and touching film has plenty to recommend it, and fans of the novel and newbies alike will likely find themselves moved (and dabbing their eyes) more times than they can count.
Young Hazel’s perpetual illness has kept her away from most social situations, and she’s far more happy at home watching “America’s Next Top Model” and hanging out with her perpetually concerned parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, who are both excellent) than putting herself out there amongst her own age group. Being a teen is hard enough – being a terminally ill, whip-smart teen sounds nearly impossible. But there is one thing that trumps Hazel’s discomfort at being around other kids, which is seeing her parents unhappy, and knowing that she will eventually die and devastate them, Hazel agrees to attend a local support group for kids with cancer, simply because it appears to (temporarily) please them.
Hazel is, without question or qualification, a wonderful person, and a character very much worth rooting for. Woodley is winning as ever in the film, thanks to a role that requires her to fold in a bit of the star-making sarcasm that set her apart in “The Descendants” with her particular brand of quirky charm.
Elgort, however, doesn’t fare quite as well. His Gus isn’t so much whimsical and weird as he is a former sports bro with a staring problem and a deep misunderstanding of what “metaphor” means. Perhaps this is what teens like – strangers who stare at them and trot around with unlit cigarettes between their cancer-ridden lips – but the film’s first act doesn’t do Gus any favors, and Elgort’s performance feels more like a bad spin on the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, just stuffed into basketball shorts. The pair meet at that forced support group – Gus is in remission, but he’s there to support his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who is about to lose a second eye to his own cancer – and slowly form a close friendship that seems destined to turn into love.
The film’s first half is lovely and sweet and quite funny, if perhaps just a bit too good-natured. While Hazel’s illness is never far from mind (she totes around a backpack that provides her with fresh oxygen and she even ends up in the hospital for a brief stay), the duo’s halting steps into Teen Relationship Territory are real and relatable. That, of course, eventually changes during the film’s wrenching final half, one that hinges entirely on the various evolutions of both Hazel and Gus’ seemingly different health statuses.
Perhaps that’s the real magic of the film, as Boone’s big screen take on Green’s novel appropriately apes the flow of the book – one that feels almost disarmingly fizzy and fun for its first half (yes, despite the cancer), before turning quite suddenly serious around its halfway point. There’s an infectious lightness to the film’s first hour that is both disarming and genuinely honest. Although most stories would mine Hazel and Gus’ age for maximum emotional violence – they’re just kids! – “The Fault in Our Stars” doesn’t shy away from flipping that on its head. They’re just kids, and they’re going to act like it, too.
Both Hazel and Gus can be silly and stupid and airheaded, obsessed with texting and talking and sharing beloved bits of pop culture, wild about each other and their future, just like any other (cancer-free) duo of similar age. After all, they’re just kids, and while they might temporarily swoon at their thoughtless display of public affection in the Anne Frank House (the Anne Frank House, you guys, the Anne Frank House), it’s the kind of act only a pair of hormonally-driven teens could get away with, whereas adults would be (and should be) shunned for such a bizarre and disrespectful spectacle.
Gus’ habit of keeping an unlit cigarette between his lips – “it’s a metaphor!” – is a wearing personality tic, but it does help ready the audience for one hell of an actual storytelling device, the kind that shakes up Gus, Hazel, and the trajectory of the film itself. Early on in the film, Hazel shares her favorite book with Gus – “An Imperial Affliction,” penned by the mysterious Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who has never written another thing – and their mutual love for the book soon serves as a driving force in both their relationship and the film’s narrative. Desperate to fully win Hazel’s affection, Gus plans a trip to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten, who has sort of invited them to visit, thanks to a newly-launched email correspondence. The anticipation the pair feels is palpable, and their expectation that the trip will be a life-changing one is understandable, but what they encounter there is shockingly different than anything they could have anticipated (and emotionally devastating to both them and the audience).
As is always the case with book-to-film adaptations, Green’s source material has been snipped down a bit to fit into a nifty two-hour package, and while most of the cut chunks aren’t missed (a subplot about Hazel discovering the fate of Gus’ other cancer girlfriend has wisely been excised, along with the book’s deeper emphasis on the Waters family as a whole), the brief attention paid to Nat Wolff’s Isaac and his own cancer travails stings, and fans of his character will be left disappointed for the lack of attention and care paid to him. Still, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber’s screenplay is a crisp one, and the screenwriters seem to be very much in tune with the source material.
Green’s book is beloved by the younger set, and it occasionally feels as if the film is pandering to a teen-skewing audience, with bubbly text messages and on-screen emails frequently popping up, and a mismatched soundtrack that’s heavy on popular acts and light on the kind of songs that add appropriate emotion (aside from some haunting songs by Birdy). The film has enough charm and humor to keep it appealing to a wide audience, and dumbing things down doesn’t feel particularly smart or canny, and proves to be a minor distraction to an otherwise majorly entertaining feature.