Guess what? Young adult novel adaptations are not just for attractive teens kicking butt anymore. Now the attractive-teens-dying-for-myriad-reasons genre is getting in on the game as well. Later this year Chloë Grace Moretz will star in If I Stay, as a coma-stricken girl on the verge of death. But first, Shailene Woodley leads The Fault in Our Stars, the latest and greatest cancer narrative. The Fault in Our Stars looks to take the top prize for best cancer movie from its current owner 50/50. 50/50, in turn, took the title from 1998’s Stepmom, which my own mother took me and a friend to see when we were nine years old because it looked like an uproarious comedy in the marketing. Can The Fault in Our Stars live up to this prestigious pedigree?
Well, not really. In some ways The Fault in Out Stars is structured like Bonnie and Clyde (though it is not nearly as interesting). For a good chunk of the movie, cancer and its inherent complications are just a fact of life for Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), a teen with aggressive lung cancer, which is being held at bay thanks to an experimental treatment. As Hazel is wooed by a fellow survivor (Ansel Elgort, who played Woodley’s character’s brother in Divergent – gross) cancer is just another obstacle to overcome, rather than the entire thrust of the film. Even when Hazel ends up in the hospital, the melodramatic scenes of her suffering are supplanted by quieter character moments. Of course, as the film proceeds, the cancer becomes more and more of the focus, and the requisite emotional beats come with it. The subversive moments worked while they lasted, though.
These scenes are sold by Woodley, who finally displays the acting chops that some critics have falsely been praising her for since The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. It’s not that I think she’s a bad actress (I mean, kind of), but there has been nothing particularly impressive about any of her performances up until now. Her turn as Hazel, though, is very well done. She embodies the frustration and resignation impeccably. Hazel gave up on her fight a long time ago, everything since then has been stoppage time that Hazel can’t figure out how to spend. Luckily Augustus (Elgort) is around for that.
But here’s the big problem with Hazel and Augustus. They aren’t really kids. At least not like any kids I have ever met. Both possess some of those classic teenage traits like angst (Hazel) and cockiness (Augustus), but the way that they speak is so incredibly nuanced and mature. It is unbelievable. I can see how facing such adversity might force one to grow up quickly, but a good portion of the dialogue doesn’t ring true. This is especially disappointing, as – at the beginning of the movie – Hazel (in unnecessary voiceover) claims this will be a real story about the overly sad subject matter.
The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber is the culprit as far as this issue is concerned. But it is hard to say how much of these characterizations come from John Green’s original novel, especially since I haven’t read it (and probably never will). Green worked for years in a children’s hospital, but he himself never went through cancer treatment. It is great that he feels comfortable speaking for teens in this terrible position (though I would not try such a thing with my own south-central charges), but I wonder how much of his voice for the characters is colored by his own experiences as a healthy male.
Ultimately, The Fault in Our Stars‘s greatest accomplishment is that it is not as emotionally manipulative as it could have been. This can mostly be attributed to the charming courtship between Hazel and Augustus – a love story distracts from the growing sadness just enough to make events in the final act feel somewhat earned. The supporting cast also lends some authenticity to the film, including Laura Dern and Sam Trammell as Hazel’s parents and Nat Wolff (more reserved here than he was in Palo Alto) as Augustus’ similarly cancer-ridden pal.
All of the actors are doing the best that they can. Presumably, so is director Josh Boone, but they are all working off of a tedious and overlong script. The Fault in Our Stars probably won’t top any Best Cancer Movies Ever lists at the end of the year, but it’s not for lack of trying. The actors are fighters – unfortunately the technical aspects of the film are far more dire.