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Fans of The Fault in Our Stars — namely teenage girls and 20-something women — can exhale.
The eagerly anticipated film adaptation of John Green’s popular YA novel about two teenagers fighting cancer and falling in love is everything it should be and, most likely, everything they want it to be. And yes, bring the tissues.
Still, director Josh Boone, a risky choice for such a big project considering his only film is the so-so 2012 independent romantic comedy Stuck in Love, displays considerable restraint in not forcing the tears, instead shepherding a funny, sweet, and moving adaptation to theaters that, like its two main characters, never begs for empathy. Meanwhile, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the love-struck teens, Hazel and Gus, accurately portray the innocence of first love with a natural and refreshingly sweet onscreen chemistry that makes their characters’ predicament all the more heartbreaking.
The biggest obstacle for The Fault in Our Stars was how easily the story could have devolved into a full-on massacre run. Screenwriting duo Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter ((500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now) are familiar with celebrations of young love and the pain that often comes with it. As much as movies celebrate romance as a series of boy-loses-girl challenges punctuated by their fairy-tale wedding or ever-after happiness, we know the truth: Love doesn’t always triumph and hearts are often broken.
But The Fault in Our Stars isn‘t about personal failure. Weber and Neustadter’s script echoes Green’s novel as a celebration of love and not tragic circumstance. And just the opening of (500) Days of Summer warned viewers that following film was not a love story, Hazel’s narration informs us at the outset that her love story does not go the way of the Hollywood romance, either.
Then again, neither has her life.
Diagnosed at 13 with thyroid cancer that eventually spread to her lungs, Hazel has survived because of an experimental but risky medical treatment. For now, at least. The permanent damage to her lungs, however, require her being chained to an oxygen tank; meanwhile, her loving parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) fret over their daughter’s health, while maintaining a cheery optimism about her chance at survival, an outlook more for themselves than her. (Dern in particular is terrific.)
Gus was given an 85 percent chance at survival for his aggressive bone cancer, but part of his medical treatment included the amputation of a leg just below the knee. He’s been cancer-free since.
Facing mortality at such a young age — they‘re both in their late teens — a time when most of us consider ourselves to be invincible, irrevocably changes perspective and personality. That’s the heart of Green’s story.
Directed by Josh Boone.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based the John Green novel.
A Fox Searchlight release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality, and brief strong language.
Running time: 125 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★★
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe
For Hazel, her battle with cancer has meant walling herself off from the world. At one point she tells Gus she’s like a hand grenade; she’s desperate to minimize the casualties and damage when she explodes.
Gus, however, is open, welcoming each moment, experience, and person into his life.
It’s Gus who initiates the friendship with Hazel after they meet at a cringe-worthy cancer survivors group. Later, he’s the one who pushes their relationship into something more.
Hazel and Gus later bond over her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a young girl also dying of cancer. Mutual dissatisfaction over the novel’s abrupt ending causes them to seek closure and answers from the novel’s author Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), a drunk recluse now living in Amsterdam.
Their meeting doesn’t go well. But for plot purposes, their trip isn’t so much about the author — even though the parallels between his novel and Hazel’s own fears are transparent — but in bringing the young couple closer, just in time for the big third act twist, which is also rather apparent.
As Hazel warned, The Fault in Our Stars is not one of those love conquers all fantasies. Like Romeo and Juliet and so many other tales of doomed love, it’s heartbreak that sells the story.
It’s a credit to Boone, Weber, and Neustadter, and Woodley and Elgort that Gus and Hazel‘s story is told so well.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.