Far too often, cancer dramas go overboard with clichés and weigh down the story with an abundance of sentimentality. It never feels real whenever films go down that route and underlies the all too real struggle that people of all ages go through every day of their lives. That’s what made The Fault In Our Stars so surprising is that it treats the all too sensitive issue carefully while not overtly making you feel like a sap for watching it. Being as I don’t really watch movies like this, I got swept up in the story of brave teens with cancer and the performances from the two stars. Long after the film ends, it really sticks with you as it covers various themes including life and death, making you think about your own mortality while not hammering you over the head with it.
The paring of Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Gus made for a great pairing and amazing chemistry. They go impeccably well off of each other and make you believe that they belong together. Hazel is a 16 year old who was diagnosed at a young age with terminal thyroid cancer that caused irreparable damage to her lungs, leading her to lug an oxygen tank wherever she goes. Such harsh realities of life and death caused her to become sarcastic and realistic to her condition. Nothing will even make her get out of the house as she spends most of her time reading her favorite novel An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. She sees herself as a grenade that would rather lessen the blast and not get too close to anyone. Through her parent’s insistence, she goes to a support group where she immediately doesn’t buy into the system and craps all over it. But it is only when she meets a survivor, Gus who has osteosarcoma which is now in remission but caused his leg to be amputated that she opens up to others and herself. Woodley is exceptional portraying a cancer patient with realistic aplomb and pizazz.
She showcases great confidence in her convictions and perseverance while not begging for sympathy from anyone. Despite her own best interests, she’ll go out of her way to show anyone watching that the disease won’t stop her from doing what she wants. Woodley doesn’t have many screen credits, but the ones she has quickly shows how dynamic her performances are. The Descendants and The Spectacular Now are proof of how strong she can be in a dramatic setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her get an Oscar nomination soon at the current rate she’s going. She switches form angry and despondent to funny and alive so effortlessly, it’s hard to know where she’ll take you next. In true movie fashion, she meets a guy who brings her out of her self-imposed imprisonment. But the way that it was presented didn’t make it feel forced. It seems more realistic that she’d fall for a guy with a similar disease than a regular guy.
Elgort was just as great, showcasing an A list charm that everyone fawns over. Filled with confidence without being an overbearing jerk, he just wants to appreciate every moment that he is alive. With a more optimistic view of life, he sees things in an alternative light. One moment shows Gus putting a cigarette in his mouth while talking to a shocked and disgusted Hazel, only for him to reveal that it’s a metaphor for staring death directly in the face but not giving it an inch of a chance. Things like that make him inherently likable but it switches from light to dark to another scene that makes you feel for him. In a great scene, he breaks down showing the severity of the situation. Up until then, it was a good performance but that one scene put him over the top and made it a great performance. Intense and emotional, you can really see how much of himself he put into that heartbreaking scene. With a very limited resume, he shows that he is more than capable of handling a serious role with heavy content.
Hazel’s parents Michael and Frannie played by Sam Trammell and Laura Dern are in the background for the most part but in parts show a couple who more or less don’t want to admit their daughter’s condition. The perspective from the parents is essential, showing optimism for Hazel that she herself doesn’t and refuses to have. She forces her reality of her own mortality on Frannie, making her realize that eventually she may die. It’s a powerful moment and rather cathartic where they are on the same plane. A big surprise for me was seeing Willem Dafoe as the author of Hazel’s favorite book. So when I first saw him, I knew he would kill it, he usually has an impactful presence in his performances. While his role was small in length, it had many repercussions later in the movie. Playing a recluse drunk ex writer living in Amsterdam, he abhors America and doesn’t want to be bothered. So when he is visited, his brief time on screen was powerful, filled with vitriol and menacing. What I really loved about it is that more than likely no one has ever went off on these kids for their condition, and why would anyone since it’s a terrible thing to do. But they both handled it like anyone else would with swearing and cutting insults. Woodley more than holds her own like a seasoned pro against a vet like Dafoe.
Much credit should go to Josh Boone, directing only his second film. His debut Lost In Love was a largely unseen and vastly underrated indie that has some similar themes present. He has quickly made his mark here with TFIOS and has a great control for the emotional depths of the story and characters. While some scenes pander emotionally, it presents them in a way that’s different. It’s definitely not the same old from previous tear jerkers. While clichés will always be present in films no matter what, they are not forced here. They all come naturally and coincide with the tone of the story. There were quite a few surprises that caught me off guard, just when everything is swimmingly going along. The rug comes out from under you and you’re at ground level, no longer in the clouds. It’s something that should be expected given the content that is being dealt with, but it doesn’t make it any less surprising when it does happen. He shows that anything can happen while going through the ringer of love and loss, death and rebirth without sacrificing its strong heart at its core.
The script was surprisingly well done but after seeing who wrote it I am not that surprised. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote 500 Days Of Summer and The Spectacular Now. The former is one of my favorite movies with a brilliantly breezy but heartfelt script and the latter I have not seen but I have been dying to see it. I think they’re writing is that good that nearly anyone could read their words in place of the original roles and it would still be amazing. It just feels so refreshing and handled very naturally. That’s not saying that the original actors don’t matter, of course it would be different but still good. They know how to craft dialogue for today’s generation, and make it seem real. The dialogue was funny as much as it was romantic with plenty of dramatic moments. It contained the total package without being overbearing. I don’t go out of my way to see these movies. More or less I see them on Netflix or On Demand when I want to see something new and different. But the way they combined arching themes of love and death combined with a realistic portrayal made it available to everyone. Often filled with pessimism, it shows a more down to earth portrayal of young kids with deadly illnesses.
I loved the introspective themes it raised throughout the film. Make no mistake about it, it gets really depressing and everyone suffers a great deal but one character named Isaac played by Nat Wolff, a friend to Gus and Hazel whose cancer caused him to lose his eye and potentially lose the other one. Knowing that he may be blind is incredibly sad but seeing him come to terms with it was rather moving. The foresight to witness the potential end of sight and just going with it shows a type of bravery I don’t even know. I also loved how they dealt with being remembered after being gone and ones need to not be forgotten. Hazel mentions oblivion awaits us all and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Eventually everyone will be forgotten, never to be remembered again. That stark darkness toward life brings a crashing down to reality feeling, the best way for Hazel to confront death head on. It goes against Gus’s views of doing something brilliant one day and being remembered for it. The contrast in differing views brings them together, where they eventually mesh together as one ideal. The relationships one builds will live on forever within the people they shared it with; long after that person has died. Beautifully poetic and truthful, it weaves through the torrid web of despair like a spider creating a webbed masterpiece.
I was very reluctant to give this movie the light of day, no matter how good the reviews were. Sometimes I label films too quickly without giving it a chance as I would have labeled this a “chick flick” like that’s the worst thing in the world. But it’s clearly more than a genre stereotype. Emotionally investing but not to a point that will make you go blech and a story that it all too real. Even during a point in the film where they first kiss didn’t feel forced as the surrounding elements supported it healthily. For a cancer drama, it was deeper than I expected but welcomed with open arms. The kids being wise beyond their years doesn’t always work but when faced with the all too grown up emotions like death, seeing them grow up quickly emotionally is realistic and scary. Death is often beyond our control but how we choose to live those final moments and leave something meaningful is well within our right to manage with dignity. Four and a half Okays out of five.