Film Review: The Fault in Our Stars

"I love it when you talk medical to me," one kid with cancer says to another in 'The Fault in Our Stars.' Facing its issues with such wit and attitude keeps the film from ever being lugubrious. That and Shailene Woodley.

I came to snicker, but I stayed to—if not weep—at least emote over The Fault in Our Stars. The same thing may happen to you. Though without its tough cookie of a lead character, Hazel Lancaster, played by Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars might have slipped into sentimentality. Instead, this adaptation of the young-adult best-seller handles its unlikely topic, teens in Stage Four cancer (there is no Stage Five), with an upbeat, though realistic, slant.

Woodley’s Hazel is also a narrator of the movie. So with her point of view we have special insight into what it’s like to have terminal thyroid cancer, to not be able to breathe without her ever-present oxygen tanks. Understandably depressed, she gives a shot at a support group because her parents and medical team want her to. There, she meets and eventually falls for Gus Waters, an ex-jock and a very smart guy whose leg was sacrificed to a malignant bone tumor.

The couple picks up a sidekick of sorts, also from the group. Nat Wolff adds exactly the right note of adolescent goofiness to his invalid state, with riffs to make you giggle even when he loses his eyesight. They may have cancer, but they’re still teens. The other counterbalance is Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten, a writer Hazel and Gus admire, and a presence hanging over the film. He has written a book about cancer, and responds to Hazel’s e-mails. Hazel (and Gus) hope to visit him in Amsterdam where he lives, though at first this doesn’t seem feasible for Hazel, and besides, as Gus points out, she’s already wasted her “Last Wish” on visiting Disneyland.

Hazel especially wants to know some of the answers about mortality that the writer leaves open at the end of his book, An Imperial Affliction. But instead of a kind, wise spiritual healer, Van Houten turns out to be a snarly curmudgeon when they do finally meet him in Amsterdam. Dafoe is good at that. Once more, though, Hazel defies fate, and finds a way out of her disappointment. It helps that her boyfriend is there, and her ever-supportive mom, too, the duena as libertine. She’s an exceptionally sweet one as played by Laura Dern. Dafoe sticks out like a sore thumb in this cheery film, but ink-stained wretches like critics, and some twisted adults, will relate. And his character has his reasons.

There’s a good chance that The Fault in Our Stars will be the Love Story for this teen generation. It may not have the signature phrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but there are a couple of other possibilities—e.g., being a fighter means you say nine, not ten, when asked about your extreme pain; ten is when death takes your love.

It’s personal taste, but Elgort (also seen with Woodley in Divergent) seems too much of a smiley face in his interpretation of his part. But it’s cancer, so perhaps he has a right to be determinedly upbeat.

With its fight, spirit, honesty and insistence on good values, plus its brave junior female hero, it’s easy to see why the novel is a best-seller. It’s also zeitgeist-appropriate in that, unlike Love Story, the feisty survivor is a female. Though this viewer is by no means 16, she has a good memory, and the enchantment of the first important love, kiss, etc. (made here more poignant by the mortality hanging over all) rings true in the film as well.

If you don’t buy into the central relationship, however, The Fault in Our Stars may be too much of a primer on support groups, patterned like all such groups are on the AA model, here taking place in the Episcopal Church of Indianapolis. In this, the movie is faithful to the book, as apparently the novelist John Green took his inspiration from having been a group counselor in Indiana. The film may also seem too much of a touristy guide to Amsterdam, particularly with its pointed visit to the house of Anne Frank, another teen with death on her shoulders who still managed to cram her life with light and life.

One stylistic warning, or breakthrough, if you like. The new technology is graphically reimagined as text messages and other digital stuff pop up on the screen in cartoon-like balloon shapes filled with dialogue. Whether you find that intrusive or a fitting sign of the times depends on your age group.

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