PLOT: A young woman named Hazel who is fighting cancer (Woodley) falls in love with a young man named Gus who is also sick (Elgort).
WHO'S IT FOR? People who like movies that very precisely hope to make them cry.
The Fault in Our Stars isn't a formulaic film so much as a profoundly scientific one. It is concentrated from the methods for which a film experience can become an emotionally rewarding evacuation of the tear ducts, regardless as to whether a viewer has read the book. With its pretty young leads, post-Juno dialogue, and bingo board bummer jam soundtrack, the film is a crowd pleaser for viewers looking to cry on a movie's shoulder. However, it doesn't really observe what it's meant to be about, so much as specifically steer viewers towards an awkwardly fantastical version of grave life events, as suffered by the most freely narcissistic and naive people in the universe, teenagers.
One can only imagine the lack of soul this film might have without the sincerity of Shailene Woodley. She continues to show an earnestness in her portrayal of teenager emotional anarchy, even if her perspective is more mature than the material she is enlivening. For whatever this weepie fails to make one feel, one can recognize the precision in the amount of insta-grief she expresses when waking up to the sound of a household phone ringing, perhaps the film's most vivid passage. Even when chewing through her young character's non-profound thoughts on life, Woodley herself remains wise.
The spark between Woodley and Elgort is pertinent, but his falseness keeps the movie's intent more shallow than it may dream. Elgort's character is one who fulfills wishes, both to characters and the audience. Romantic interests have been written as such at a time earlier than hieroglyphs, but within this movie it's an awkward resignation of integrity when claiming to own a true tale of sickness. In the pursuit of making a perfect character of straight quirkiness, The Fault in Our Stars forgets to make its co-lead, half of its romantic, an interesting dude in even the plainest sense.
The Fault in Our Stars belongs mostly to Woodley & Elgort, but a supporting turn by Laura Dern as Hazel's mother is not to be overlooked. The movie may make her sit outside the teen zone most of the time, but Dern shows a vulnerable compassion throughout. One scene in which she defends optimism as not being ridiculous strikes to the core of anyone trying to manage a life-challenging experience. She owns the best line too, which comes as directly as other lines of dialogue in the film, but still as genuine. As she says to Hazel about accepting her place as a mother who may have to live without her daughter, "You of all people know it's possible to live with pain. You just do it."
This film specifically opines on death through the perspectives of young adults, gushing oodles of Tumblr-ready ruminations. Nothing these teens say is particularly revelatory, (yup, funerals are for the living than the dead) but it is forgivably indicative of their placement deep in the throngs of hormonal budding. Hazel and Gus are Teenz with a capitol T and a lower case Z, embarking on a whimsical hyper-romance of aggressive liberty, completely overdoing their metaphoric references, making out in the Anne Frank House, and whatever else kids do nowadays. Even if these characters do probably watch Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet when the cameras aren't rolling, the film creates an earnest idea of how teens think.
While Hazel is the brain of the film, she ultimately isn't the god of the story's fate, or in movie speak, its director. Should this film have been directed by a non-adult perspective, its more awkward passages of teenage whimsy could be excused. For example, is fighting cancer the same as trying to elude the Holocaust? Such is an uncomfortable inquiry raised by a sequence that features Hazel climbing ladders through the Anne Frank House, battling exhaustion that has been foreshadowed to be incredibly dangerous. It's as half-considered yet fully serious as the idea of referencing Shakespeare in the project's title, without acknowledging Brutus, or the the bard himself. It just sounds cool, I guess?
The Fault in Our Stars is every term that Thesaurus.com uses for the word "awkward," including: all thumbs, blundering, having two left feet, having two left hands, my Twitter presence, floundering, maladroit, and gawky. Hazel states in her opening voice-over that her story is "the truth," but it is neither that when opposed to the similarly self-conscious films in the "cancer genre," nor when compared to real life. The Fault in Our Stars is a palpable example of why romance films about sick teenagers are so strange, regardless of the tears they may squeeze out of viewers in search of a movie to comfort them; it's a combination of life fantasy as inspired by uniquely experienced life futility, concepts that its characters and reflective audience of certain age and experience probably don't fully understand, but aren't expected to. The notion of "forever," (also known on certain trees as "4evr") is something that many early relationships can hinge on without fully doing the math of what an eternity of dating feels like. Within these films "forever" takes on a grave immediacy, but with the same lack of understanding. These movies are like stories of teens bonding together and springing past regular maturity bounds to get married or create children, y'know, real permanent stuff, but it's about them dying.
The Fault in Our Stars uses its wisecracks on the cancer genre for something worse than what is to be found in the even sappier movies Hazel is toothlessly dissing. Boone's movie takes things further; it claims to have awareness but then uses that tool backwards, in order to claim validation for its intentionally narrow perspective. The movie isn't so much comforting as much as it is assaultive, and I'm not sure to what greater honest goal. More than remorse for the fate of innocent fictional characters, through its methodical fantasy The Fault in Our Stars does indeed make optimism sound ridiculous, a bittersweet feeling of the most awkward variety.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10