A film review by Craig J. Koban July 10, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 125 mins.


Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster  /  Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters  /  Nat Wolff as Isaac  /  Laura Dern as Mrs. Lancaster  /  Sam Trammell as Mr. Lancaster  /  Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten

Directed by Josh Boone /  Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS walks up a very slippery and problematic cinematic slope.  It traverses between two subgenres that, when done poorly, can come off as manipulative poppycock: the coming-of-age teen romance drama and the terminal cancer tearjerker.  

Yet, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS manages – through strong and perceptive writing, wonderfully nuanced lead performances, and a keen and observantly told love story – to overcome the typical pratfalls and conventions of these types of films.  That, and the film all but confirms 22-year-old star Shailene Woodley as one of the most natural screen presences of the movies.  Every moment she occupies in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS contains truth; there’s not a false beat to be found here. 

The title is an allusion to Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars”) and the movie, in turn, is based on the sixth novel of the same name by John Green, published in 2012 concerning two Indianapolis teenagers – both with cancer – that fall in love.  The screenplay adaptation was penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, both of whom previously teamed up to write the sublime romcom (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and another Woodley starring vehicle, THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  These writers have a razor sharp knack for getting into the headspaces of their quirky characters by making them feel authentically rendered (THE SPECTACULAR NOW in particular was one of the most attentive and credible warts-and-all portraits of young romance that I’ve ever seen).  Clearly, Neustadter and Weber not only understand the daunting challenge of adapting such a cherished literary work, but they also stay true to it while giving the story a respectful dignity and sense of purpose that so many other similar films lack altogether.  Best of all, they revere and honor their adolescent characters as bright and thoughtful people, traits that other coming-of-age films forego altogether.  

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is about, yes, two young people that have essentially been dealt a death sentence.  Woodley plays 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who was diagnosed with cancer at 13, which weakens her lungs to the point where she has to be fed oxygen through a tank that she methodically drags behind her 24/7.  Being on the recent receiving end of an experimental new drug, Hazel has managed to prolong her lifespan by a considerable measure, but she nevertheless  struggles on a daily basis.  Her parents (well played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) feel that their daughter, despite her good fortune with her cancer, might be depressed, so they insist that she attends a local support group of fellow cancer patients.  It’s pretty clear within her first few visits that Hazel gets little emotional benefits from attending. 



Alas, it’s at these support groups that Hazel has a meet-cute with Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, whom played – oddly enough – Woodley’s brother in DIVERGENT), an older teenage lad that used to be a high school basketball superstar…until cancer nearly took his life and did take his right leg below the knee.  Initially, Hazel finds Augustus to be a very eccentrically weird young man, but the more time she spends with him the more she begins to realize what a positive influence that he has on her.  Since he too had cancer and essentially beat it, Hazel comes to admire Augustus for being such a lightning rod of optimistic and cheerful energy (especially considering his own hellish cancer nightmare) and the pair soon become inseparable.  Obviously, romantic sparks easily form between the pair, but Hazel wishes to keep their relationship as platonic as possible; she perceives herself, in her own words, as a “grenade” that could explode at any moment…or die at any moment, leaving any potential boyfriends crestfallen.  He acquiesces to her demands, but over time they both find it impossible to keep their feelings in check. 

One of the greatest virtues of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is that it never goes our of its way to present Hazel and Augustus as pathetic victims that are at the mercy of their respective diseases.  Even though it’s clear that, at any point, cancer could erupt in either of them and could cause irrecoverable hardships, Hazel and Augustus still refreshingly occupy their story as relatively normal, happy-go-lucky teens.  The bond that they share as well is observed with a nurturing patience in the film as well, and the screenplay captures the exhilarating and stressful whirlwind of emotions that accompanies just about anyone – young and old – falling in love.  Hazel and Augustus stand so far apart in this film in relation to other teen characters in previous films for the manner that they’re captured as genuine, honest, and deeply flawed human beings.  Even though the cancer that both characters endure takes their respective toil of their lives, Hazel and Augustus never become whimpering sufferers.  Their collective courage to take on their disease head-on and move forward with their lives…for whatever time they have left without looking back…makes them refreshingly heroic.   

The chemistry of the two leads here is of primary importance; without it, the film would have imploded on itself.  Woodley has rarely been ill-footed in any film in her young career (she was superlative in THE DESCENDANTS and was so achingly convincing in THE SPECTACULAR NOW) and she continues her streak in THE FAULT IN OUT STARS in a touchingly pure performance.  She has such a disarmingly subtle naturalism to her that makes all of her performances feel lived-in and tangible.  Ansel Elgort has a tricky role as Augustus, seeing as he has to play a lovably cocksure and limitlessly self-assured young man that, deep down, still remains a vulnerable person of humility.  THE FAULT IN OUR STARS feels positively alive when Woodley and Elgort share the screen; their performances invite and draw you into their stories instead of pushing you away at a distance. 

There’s a subplot that pays off rather handsomely in the film.  Hazel has been corresponding with her favorite author (played with meticulous precision and odiousness by Willem Dafoe), who has become a recluse living in Amsterdam and hasn’t written anything in years.  He does grant Hazel an audience with him at his home overseas, but after the long and physically arduous flight over to Amsterdam, Hazel is let down when she discovers what a belligerent, anti-social, and hostile alcoholic the man has become.  Dejected, Hazel and Augustus decide that the best course of action to recoup is to tour the sites, so they decide to visit the Anne Frank museum.  Of course, the museum consists of multiple floors with no elevator support, but Augustus – with one prosthetic leg – and Hazel – with oxygen tank in tow – help each other make their way up the stairs until they finally arrive at the top.  Upon making it…they share their first kiss.  It’s a moment of sublime physical and emotional victory for both of them.  Lesser films would have made scenes like this unbearably saccharine, but THE FAULT IN OUR STARS earns its payoffs in a legitimately heartfelt way. 

Alas, the romance in the film is indeed of the tragic and doomed variety, which means that it seems soul-crushingly inevitable that one of these kids isn’t going to make it out of the film alive.  It there were a flaw in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS then it would be in the area of running time (at 125 minutes, the film seems too padded and long), not to mention that the third act – which will arguably leave many audience member reaching for multiple tissues – feels ironically like it’s rushing itself to a conclusion.  Still, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS manages the Herculean task of marrying hearty laughs with sweetness and wounded melancholy, and it does so with an exactitude and assured tact.  It could be argued that films like this are inherently manipulating viewers to force tears out of them, but THE FAULT IN OUR STARS never once feels nauseatingly exploitative.  Unlike so many other cancer melodramas, this film respects and admires its characters enough to not slavishly use them as puppets.  This is three-hankie cinema done with impeccable restraint, delicacy, and wit, which is uncommonly rare these days.

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